New Era of Sports Media
by Kevin Cook
The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis joined Bill Simmons and the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay to discuss the changing face of sports media in the ‘new era,’ but before he broke it down on The Bill Simmons Podcast, he broke it down on The Weekly Brew.
A lot of Curtis’ points are covered in the piece he wrote for The Ringer’s website, The Familiar Lousiness of the ESPN Layoffs.
- Dick Schaap: In discussing The Sports Reporters, Curtis talks about Schaap being on television for a long time, having ‘legitimate literary bona fides’ and calls him a literary godfather before pondering who that is now. ‘They were all kind of working for him in a way.’ I think no one in the room (Gay is technically on the phone) can or will say it, but the first name that comes to mind for me is… Bill Simmons. Simmons kickstarted 30 for 30, some of the best content ESPN has ever consistently produced, was the founder and driving force behind Grantland, which targeted some of the most talented writers – inside and outside of the ‘sports media’ world – and provided them a platform to produce thoughtful, longform journalism and think pieces. Look at guys like Zach Lowe, Jalen Rose, and I would argue guys like Jonah Keri and Rembert Browne… the list goes on. I would argue there is an entire generation of sportswriters/reporters/broadcasters/thinkers that owes either its start or its national profile to Bill Simmons’ largesse. Reasonable minds may differ, but – to me – Bill Simmons is the modern-era Dick Schaap.
- Gay says: “What I find a little tough to swallow is people wrapping it up into some self-serving agenda or cultural statement about where ESPN is or isn’t heading.” Curtis got into the discussion about whether or not ESPN is a ‘liberal organization,’ on The Weekly Brew. His thesis was essentially that, if you’re asking the question whether ESPN is or isn’t left-leaning, then the answer is probably yes… but does that matter? I brought up Colin Kaepernick and his National Anthem protest, which was widely reviled (not by me – I consider it the absolute highest form of patriotism, on par with Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics), but didn’t impact viewership. Conservative morons were happy to tweet about how much they hated Kaepernick and his stance, but they didn’t quit watching the NFL. I think what Curtis was saying on the Brew, and I think this is accurate, is that ESPN’s stance on things like gay rights, trans rights, promoting women’s voices certainly rubbed a lot of the idiots in flyover country the wrong way, but they were angrily tweeting at their televisions, not turning them off or to another channel. If you’re one of those dolts tweeting about how ESPN is ‘failing’ or had to make these cuts as a concession to conservative values in order to win back viewers, check yourself. Much smarter people than you disagree with that analysis.
- Is ESPN failing? That’s another common theme of uninformed commentary online. ESPN isn’t failing, and likely isn’t going to fail. You can list off deals like the Longhorn Network (Curtis had a hysterical line on the Brew that he just threw away: “How about ESPN becoming essentially a branded content arm of the University of Texas?”), the $5.6 billion deal with MLB for Monday, Wednesday and exclusive “Sunday Night Baseball” games, and the list goes on, that probably hurt ESPN, overextended or weakened the Worldwide Leader’s position – making it necessary to trim fat – but make no mistake: this is a move designed to keep ESPN competitive and profitable. I made reference to ESPN’s “Content Evolution Strategy” (linked to from the John Skipper message to ESPN employees), which you can see here.
- Simmons, Curtis and Gay go back and forth on what this must look like, and what it must mean, to a hypothetical 20-year old pursuing a career in sports media. Simmons: “Writing is always going to matter. Being a good writer is still an advantage, so read and write as much as you possibly can.” Curtis and Gay both allude to ‘range,’ the idea being that if your skill set is diversified (print, online, audio, video), you stand a better chance of standing out and getting looks. Evidently, the old advice was, ‘find a beat – something you know better than anyone,’ but that granular approach doesn’t necessarily lead to success in today’s sports media landscape. A better piece of advice is to do as many things (well) as you can, and demonstrate that you can do it any which way. That’s why I have a two podcasts and a full-time writing job and a place like this to write whatever occurs to me.
- Final Thoughts: A lot of people responded to the ESPN Layoffs like they were unique or unusual. I work for a newspaper. Trust me, this is nothing new. If anything, it’s the reality of the media landscape catching up to what was once thought to be an invincible giant. When the company I worked for two years ago was bought by the larger conglomerate that runs it today (you can listen back to the tape – I’m not going to name names here), the larger company laid off about 30% of the editorial staff in absorbing the smaller company. There was a period of about a week where all of us at the smaller company went and interviewed at the big, downtown building and were told we’d know if we still had a job on Wednesday or Thursday. I heard back Friday (after two days of pretty panicked texts and phone calls) that I was being retained. Two of the guys I worked with most closely before the merger were let go (they’ve both landed elsewhere, which I’m glad for). This has been happening everywhere, and ESPN is not immune. That’s what we’ve learned. But, just as newspapers have found a way to survive by futzing with subscription models, cutting staff, etc. ESPN will ‘survive’ and continue to be a presence in sports media, though I’ll be interested to see how strong and omnipresent that presence is.
Would love to hear the listeners’/readers’ thoughts (unless you have an “ESPN is liberal, and that’s why it’s failing” take – in that case, don’t bother) on Facebook.
Most importantly, let’s remember that these are real people, flesh and blood human beings, most of whom do or did good work in the field. I’ve dodged buyouts and mass layoffs (I’m relatively young and very, very cheap, which is probably helpful), but there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be one of these names at one of these organizations someday. Here is the current list of the real, human beings that ESPN parted ways with last week, courtesy of Deadspin.