In 2004, a show called “Dream Job” premiered on ESPN.
The premise was simple (and some might say, ahead of its time). Eleven contestants, selected in a nationwide search, competed to land a job as an ESPN anchor.
The actual competition was well designed and well executed, and every week, contestants battled one another by performing a grueling set of tasks that assessed their abilities. My personal favorite was the “Teleprompter Simulation” where the contestant was put on camera on the real SportsCenter set with a script he/she had written, only to have the teleprompter cut out in the middle of the segment.
It was riveting television not only from a competition standpoint but because viewers were getting a behind the scenes look at the life of a SportsCenter anchor.
Mike Hall, a 22 year old college student, emerged victorious in Season 1 and went onto have marginal success at the network working there for 3 years on various platforms before leaving amicably in 2007. (He currently can be seen on the Big Ten Network).
That would be however be the pinnacle of the show, as the next couple of seasons of “Dream Job,” show executives floundered at keeping audiences interested. What was more, while the ESPN universe was ever-expanding, executives quickly found that there were very few places where the winners could actually develop organically and gradually. Hall, it seemed, was the anomaly and was excellent right out of the gate whereas all of the contestants in the following season were dramatically ill-equipped and unmatched.
In 2007, ESPN, which still possessed an admirable amount of self-awareness, cut its losses and canceled the series citing that rather than giving fans the impression they could do what their heroes did, it was more important to produce excellence in the area of sports reporting by focusing on the network’s well-established and well-proven methods of on-air talent acquisition and development.
The public actually agreed, and ESPN, which appeared bulletproof at this point, moved on without a scratch.
By this time, ESPN had seemingly done enough at bridging a gap that had always seemed to exist between the every-man and the news reporters we saw on television. By hiring exquisite talent and personalities and pairing that with genius marketing efforts, most notably those wonderful SportsCenter commercials, ESPN had already succeeded at connecting with America, further entrenching itself into the national lexicon of not only sports but also culture. The effort to extend even further into the culture was admirable but unnecessary at the time.
At its core, ESPN was consistently succeeding at being what it intended to be and that was to be at the forefront of sports and entertainment programming. It was three moves ahead of everyone, providing the public with everything they wanted before they knew they wanted it…or so it seemed.
The Hot-Take Culture
In 2014, Bill Simmons was suspended from ESPN (for the second time) after railing against Roger Goodell on his podcast.
The suspension was expected and no one was surprised that Simmons, already on the fringes of favor with ESPN, would be dealt with in such a way, however it was this “reaction” by ESPN that would typify a developing weakness in the network’s armor.
Several things had already occurred leading up to this moment.
- ESPN Subscriptions were on decline and trending towards a “disaster” scenario.
- Fox was making a noble attempt at competing with ESPN.
- Social Media was on the rise.
All three events were significant enough challenges to face on their own merit, but that they were happening at the same time, forced ESPN into fighting a war on three different fronts.
Regarding subscriptions, for decades, ESPN had deals in place with cable and satellite providers that would exclusively include ESPN channels in almost all packages. For as long as people were subscribing to cable and satellite services, people would continue to get ESPN, and ESPN in turn would continue to rake in huge royalties.
Enter “cord-cutters.” With the advent of streaming services that essentially allowed consumers to choose their programming “a-la-carte” at a fraction of the cost of cable and satellite packages, more and more people began cutting the cord on cable and satellite forcing those companies to drop their prices drastically, in an exercise of their own self-preservation. As a result, the understood inclusion of the ESPN in cable packages went by the wayside.
The cord-cutting writing had been on the wall for several years already, and certain leaders at ESPN had in fact voiced concern – Simmons being one of them – but ESPN’s attitude, as it had been for decades remained, “We’ll ride this out and just innovate. People will come back.”
Fox meanwhile took up residence right on ESPN’s corner and embarked on an approach to match ESPN not only from a content perspective but from a talent perspective.
Their main vehicle, FS1 rebranded itself as a SportsCenter wannabe with anchors that matched ESPN wit-for-wit. In many instances even, FS1 actually poached former ESPN talent.
To make matters worse, the ESPN machine gradually began to wear thin with certain ESPN personalities whose own brands began to outgrow (or in most cases war with) ESPN. Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick had long gone during the first iteration of this same type of war, but a new breed of ESPN personalities most notably Simmons, Colin Cowherd, and Jason Whitlock, found themselves in similar territory.
And then the death nail. Social Media. Prior to the popularization of this medium, ESPN appeared to have some semblance of control over what was said and who said it. As a result, they could carefully curate and craft all thoughts and opinions coming out of the company at just about every level. However as Twitter took on a shape of its own and as more and more ESPN personalities began to voice their opinions with relative impunity about politics, culture, and yes even other ESPN personalities, the network was forced into the unenviable position of creating rules, standards, and yes…exceptions.
Another example of reacting.
ESPN was no longer the worldwide leader.
ESPN was the worldwide reactor.
Three Wrong Moves
As I stated before, “reacting” to three major issues at three different times would not and should not have been difficult undertakings, even if one reaction to one of those issues turned out to be an incorrect one.
In this case though, ESPN had to react to three different issues simultaneously and in all three issues, reacted incorrectly.
Subscription crisis: ESPN chose to go all in on “content” rather than “technology.” Rather than sinking more resources into technological development and embracing what culture was demanding, ESPN thought it wise to focus on a different brand of programming – one driven by “hot takes.” As a result, the company fell behind on streaming applications, ignored YouTube integration, and insisted that consumers continue using their antiquated media players. What is worse, the one element that actually was ahead of the curve in terms of development – espn.com – the website, formerly a bastion of good information and quality news was gutted and “revamped” in favor of an algorithmic driven approach that cycled people through the new cycles that ESPN deemed “important.”
The result – the ESPN news cycle – where a talking head in the morning would make a comment, which would then be parsed, discussed, and churned through every other ESPN vehicle, and then pushed to the website to further be discussed, analyzed and broken down.
Within hours, a story like Ron Jaworski proclaiming in 2014 that “Colin Kapernick could be the greatest quarterback of all time” was in every market, on every program, and being picked up by other news outlets.
Conceptually, this would be a brilliant strategy to drive traffic and attract clicks, however at the time, ESPN was not lacking in this area and actually possessed one of the largest SEO footprints on the internet. Furthermore, this new strategy also was in stark opposition to the value of providing relevant and important news and information. How else can you explain this?
Battle with Fox: ESPN could have simply ignored FOX and continued on its trajectory and probably still trounced Fox. Instead it chose to de-emphasize high quality news reporting and get in the mud. As a result, shows built around the mantra “Embrace Debate,” took priority on ESPN while flagship programming like “Outside the Lines,” “E360,” and “30 for 30” were relegated to ESPN2 and ESPNNEWS during non-primetime hours.
Ironic that a company that for so many years was typified by forward thinking and programming ahead of its time was now defined by shows where two people were given a topic and asked to simply react and argue with one another.
Social Media: ESPN had lost its north star and with the rise of Twitter, had no set of standards to police what ESPN personalities said and when they said it. The hot take culture was now well established and while ESPN personalities were encouraged to speak their mind, they could only do so in a certain way or if they were a certain someone.
Bill Simmons’ tenure and departure are well documented but one incident that exemplifies this inconsistency occurred November of 2014.
On Colin Cowherd’s show, Simmons commented that Lebron James’ early season struggles after returning to Cleveland reminded him a tiny bit of Albert Pujols’ loss of production when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels.
On “Mike and Mike,” Mike Golic stated, “I think it’s one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve heard four games into a season in my life in any sport. That’s what I’ll say about Bill Simmons. So, you know, he grabbed a headline, which is something I know he loves — and that’s one of the most ridiculous lines I’ve ever heard in any sport in my life. Four games into a season. I don’t even … that’s ridiculous. I put nothing — ZERO — on that.”
Remember the “grab a headline” part.
Simmons quickly responded on Twitter, “Have the balls to call me to discuss it on the show. Don’t pull it out of context just because you need fodder for a segment. Pathetic.”
True to form Mike Golic had taken the comments out of context and took the opportunity to essentially call Bill Simmons – a headline grabber – or rather someone who would say or do anything for a headline.
Two weeks later, “Mike and Mike” dedicated a whole segment to Mike Golic recreating the infamous Kim Kardashian nude photo shoot that she did for Paper Magazine. (NOTE: Don’t look up either, Kardashian’s because it’s inappropriate and Golic’s, not only because it’s inappropriate but because you can’t unsee it).
Who’s the headline grabber?
An Eye On The Past
ESPN has no north star.
Rather than looking to the future, the network is insistent on revisiting all of the wells that dried up years ago.
On January 5, 2018, Seth Wickersham published a story for ESPN that speculated the New England Patriots were in disarray and that the relationships among Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Robert Kraft was so toxic that the end of dynasty was upon us.
No sources were cited. Quotes were parsed together and at face value, the article was nothing more than a theoretical expose on a team that in the past for ESPN had been a rich oasis of content and fodder for the ESPN news cycle machine.
The ESPN of old is gone, and I don’t say those words just to sound like a crotchety old man yelling at people to get off of my lawn.
Instead I’m hopeful because the old ESPN may not be entirely out of reach.
It would seem that regarding politics and culturally significant issues outside of sports, ESPN continues to walk the line as best as it can, knowing full well that jumping onto one side or even giving the impression that it is leaning to one side (to get involved…or not to get involved) would alienate the other.
But perhaps what if ESPN just chose to jump – onto the side of not getting involved.
What if instead of trying to please both sides, ESPN went back to being unapologetically the worldwide leader in sports and entertainment – two topics that by definition are relative escapes from the trying times of culture and reality.
Harkening back to “Dream Job,” ESPN had taken a shot at getting down on the level of its consumer. While it was short lived, the show was representative of how accessible ESPN was at the time as opposed to all of the other news and media outlets that existed.
Now, in a time when everyone has a place to sound off and everyone can have their opinion heard, what a relief it would be to own a piece of culture where people were safe from the reactions and hot takes and the “if you’re for me…you’re against them” mentality.