Travis Vogan dug into archives and interviewed dozens of insiders for his study of ESPN’s rise to dominance. We asked about his experience in researching the sports media giant, his main findings, and how his analysis casts light on recent events at ESPN.

(Ross Cidlowski/Flickr)

(Ross Cidlowski/Flickr)

 

The subtitle of your book calls ESPN a “sports media empire.” Empires, by nature, aren’t always open to revealing their secret plans for conquest. Were you satisfied with the research process, or did you encounter obstacles that you gave the sense that something big was being hidden away?

You know, I was able to interview almost all of the folks I wanted to interview (I never got to Bill Simmons, though). Disney, the parent company of ESPN, runs a pretty tight ship. I had to go through ESPN’s public relations department, which was at times a bit frustrating, but it was something I had to deal with if I was going to get access of any form. The PR folks were helpful and decent. I came to understand that they were doing their job, and that job just happens to be sculpting and protecting an image that I am seeking to contextualize and critique.

ESPN could have easily turned me away and never thought twice about it. I would have still been able to write the book, but it would not have been as interesting. Certainly, I would have liked greater access and more interviews, but ESPN was overall pretty generous – surprisingly so, in fact. Even though the book is often critical of ESPN – and particularly of the way it creates and reinforces its image – I appreciated their willingness to give me the access they did.

I was also surprised by how frank many of the folks at ESPN were about the motives that guide what they do. I asked some pretty pointed questions about some things, like ESPN’s use of relatively highbrow practices to build a sense of prestige that offsets their comparatively shallow material. I expected some defensiveness, but many confirmed such points as smart business without hesitation. It was a reminder that these are business people who are ultimately trying to generate revenue. They do not and should not have to apologize for this. But at the same time, it reminded me why we have academics and journalists – to look past to bottom line and explain what these business and marketing practices say about the world we live in. I hope some of the ESPN people wind up reading the book. I’ll be interested to hear what they think.

We posted an excerpt of your book’s introduction, titled: “An ESPN Culture.” In your research, did you set out to look at the culture of ESPN the corporation, or at how our culture has been shaped by this corporation?

Both, I suppose. I was originally planning to title the book ESPN Culture, in fact. My overall focus in the book is how ESPN attempts to create a branded way of looking at, experiencing, and imagining sport – a sort of culture that cannot exist without ESPN. It creates this sense of authority in part by engaging in activities to which we stereotypically ascribe greater cultural value than typical sports media, such as documentaries, books, film festivals, and so forth. So I’m considering how ESPN’s engagements with culture help to create this ESPN Culture.

You use this phrase “a branded way of looking at, experiencing, and imagining sport,” and this is something you investigate throughout the book: ESPN’s brand. How has brand been the driver of ESPN’s various programs and platforms?

At one level, ESPN produces content: games, news programs, sports talk shows, etc. But it also works to convince consumers that it is an authority – that it’s content is credible, insightful, pervasive, and sometimes even artful. This is where its brand comes in.

ESPN does a bunch of things to cultivate and reinforce its self-named position as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”  These activities span beyond its live event and news coverage to projects like SportsCentury, which suggested ESPN had the authority to sum up 20th century sports, or, in a different way, ESPN the Magazine, which in the pre-smart phone days, suggested that ESPN was something you could carry with you on the bus or to the bathroom.  In this way, these brand-driven activities drive and given meaning to ESPN’s content.  They work to separate ESPN from other sports and entertainment outlets and to equate it with sports culture.’

When did ESPN’s brand as “The Worldwide Leader” develop? Or was this always the aim, even in the early days of cheap plywood sets? 

That was always the goal, I suppose. But this really kicked into gear around 1998 – shortly after Disney acquired ESPN’s parent, Capital Cities/ABC. ESPN really began to expand geographically and across platforms after that. In fact, the same year they adopted the “Worldwide Leader” title, they put a satellite transponder in Antarctica. This made them the only cable outlet that could provide content to all seven continents. Of course, there aren’t very many viewers in Antarctica, so the gesture was largely symbolic – a statement of ESPN’s pervasiveness.  Around that time, then-ESPN chair Steve Bernstein said, “The sun never sets on the ESPN empire.”

Let’s go back to this tension between ESPN partnering with sports leagues to promote their games and at the same time aspiring to be a journalistic authority. You have a great passage in your book, in reference to ESPN ending its collaboration on the PBS documentary League of Denial, about the NFL and brain injuries: “ESPN sacrificed a fifth Peabody to kowtow to its most valuable client. The incident usefully demonstrates the limits of ESPN’s cultural aspirations. It will attach its brand to a Hunter S. Thompson column that insults the president, but not a PBS documentary that critiques the NFL.”

In your research, did you find that people within the company are aware of this contradiction?

Most were certainly aware of it – and the criticism that it prompts from reasonable people. But most were content with ESPN’s typical answer, that its journalism and entertainment do not intersect or impact each other. The League of Denial situation, though, is obviously a case that left many – including me – wondering if this is indeed the case. League of Denial is just the most egregious of several cases where conflicts of interest has arisen and where ESPN has erred on the side of protecting its arrangements with valuable clients.

And yet, as we saw with the layoffs of 300 ESPN employees a few weeks ago, these arrangements with valuable clients have a high cost for the company. ESPN has new deals to pay $1.9 billion to the NFL, $1.4 billion to the NBA, $700 million to MLB, $600 million to the College Football Playoffs, along with hundreds of millions more to other professional and college leagues. But now the company is having to cut costs to pay those rights fees. Did you find any critics within the ESPN empire – perhaps people who saw the company’s growth model as unsustainable?    

There were some indications that “something would have to give” at a certain point given the increasing cost of rights fees and the expanding slate of venues from which people can access content beyond  subscribing to cable.

That said, ESPN has basically been content to increase carriage fees to compensate for rising costs over the course of its history. Given ESPN’s popularity, cable operators tend to fall in line and pass those costs along to subscribers. I don’t have specific figures on this (Disney does not release them), but I think the argument could reasonably be made that ESPN has become even more vital to the cable industry since the rise of streaming and on-demand culture since its marquee content is still live material for which advertisers will pay premium rates. And ESPN has been increasingly expanding its online reach with Watch ESPN, its agreement with Sling, and so forth.

I hesitate to say that the layoffs indicate that ESPN’s empire has “fallen” or even waned. It instituted layoffs in 2013 and 2009. In both cases, the rising costs of rights fees were cited as the key contributor. But the recent layoffs certainly indicate that it is rethinking its priorities and place in the industry – one that might be changing more rapidly now than it was in 2009 or 2013.

Is that how you would interpret ESPN’s other recent cost-cutting measure, the closing of Grantland – another instance of the corporation “rethinking its priorities and place in the industry”? 

In part, but Grantland also was so intimately tied to its founding editor, Bill Simmons. ESPN opted not to renew Simmons’s contract in May, and he and his former employer had butted heads periodically over the course of his career. Just last fall, for instance, ESPN suspended him for calling Roger Goodell “a liar.” Grantland had lost some people recently – several of whom Simmons poached to join him at his new HBO gig – and the site was still associated with its former editor, who is now an ESPN rival. In that regard, it slipped on ESPN’s priority list – at least, that’s my guess. At the same time, though, ESPN did state a continued commitment to Nate Silver’s site FiveThirtyEight and The Undefeated, a still-developing website on sport, race, and culture. Both of these sites grew out of and were inspired by Grantland.

And ESPN will also continue to produce 30 for 30 documentaries, which were initiated by Simmons. In targeting Grantland specifically, was that an indication that this particular kind of media experiment just didn’t fit with ESPN?

I think it would fit, but there was no longer a guiding force to ensure its distinction. Even before Simmons left, Grantland had steadily moved away from its focus on longform examinations of sport and culture. In addition – and again, I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up – the ESPN Films productions actually cost far less to produce than it does to purchase the rights to cover popular live events. The documentaries can also be recycled in perpetuity across ESPN’s various channels. Grantland, on the other hand, was an expense that didn’t make or save money. That, combined with Simmons leaving and the exodus of talent, likely made it easier to justify shuttering the site.

One more question on Simmons’ departure: It seems that the whole business surrounding his suspension and firing indicates another problem with ESPN’s brand, that a big part of its approach to entertainment has been in giving the spotlight to brash, irreverent male “personalities.” But while brash, irreverent males generate popular new catch-phrases, they don’t always stay on script. The Simmons firing appears to be an instance where ESPN gave the green light to a smart-ass with a big following and then fired him after he acted like a smart-ass. 

I think you might be able to argue that they created a monster of sorts. Or that they want smart-asses on air and they encourage the snark, but only as long as these guys ultimately fall in line. There are certainly some parallels between Simmons and Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and, more recently, Colin Cowherd. But unlike these other popular folks whose relationship with ESPN was eventually strained, Simmons’ seemed to have some actual pull in the organization, which made him a bit more dangerous.

It’s not right to consider Simmons a total iconoclast. He waved the ESPN flag as enthusiastically as anyone while he was there. But his absence seemed to leave a void that even stars as big as Patrick and Olbermann did not.

Back to your idea of an “ESPN culture”: Is this culture that ESPN has created an insular one, a bubble of sports? As you described in your previous book on NFL Films, 40 years ago sports figures sought to communicate to the larger culture. In fact, the genius of NFL Films was its use of references to the larger worlds of art, literature, and film in communicating professional football to new audiences. Once upon a time, athletes sat for interviews with journalists outside of sports, and writers from outside of sports filed reports from the stadium. That doesn’t happen anymore. As you argue, ESPN has created a way of looking at, experiencing, and imagining sport. But is that culture entirely self-contained – a world unto itself?

Whether it is a world unto itself or an effort to make sure the world “out there” is ESPNified, I’m not sure. But there you bring up an interesting and counterintuitive point that I think is really important to those of us fascinated by the history of sports media in the U.S. There is this notion that as sports media proliferate, there are more venues for different types of content. We now have networks for specific leagues and conferences – and even individual teams! It would stand to reason that part of this proliferation would include different approaches to sport that place it into its cultural contexts, probe its meanings, and push against its commonly accepted boundaries. This is true to some degree. At the same time, there are niche outlets that cater to super fans who want to get into the minutiae of trades, injuries, and stats. Sports media outlets with more mainstream aspirations, whether production companies like NFL Films or broadcast networks, at least had to try to satisfy a slightly broader audience.

I wonder, then, if this expansion of sports media has led in some ways to a narrowing of how sport is presented and what sports are showcased. But there is still some great work out there. The film Foxcatcher, for instance, made me look at the sports film genre in new and interesting ways.

Of course, it’s been ESPN that has led this proliferation of sports media. Prior to 1979, there was a 15-minute sports report on the local news broadcast; we read the sports page or a magazine; and then we watched or listened to the game on the weekend. But now, ESPN and all of the other networks you mention have made sports a constant in our lives. So, to ask you to look from ESPN’s history to its future, is 24-hour, multi-platform sports media going to become the equivalent of Muzak? 

I think it will be easiest to find the Muzak, or to be more charitable, the music you hear playing at bars or on affiliate radio stations. I do think there will continue to be great stuff out there. We’ll just have to seek it out.

I guess it is kind of like music. Most of us will get by on the mainstream stuff that’s constantly available until we get restless enough to seek out an alternative – or unless we have a cool older brother to introduce us to the good shit.

 

Travis Vogan teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He is on Twitter at @TV0GAN.