Review of ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire

Vogan, Travis. ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. 256. Notes and Index. $95.00 clothback, $19.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Kyle R. King

What if I told you that the widening gyre of sports media has a centripetal force? That even as sports media ventures proliferate, they all operate according to a similar logic? Corporate programming divisions such as the NBC Sports Network (2011) and niche darlings such as the Tennis Channel (2003) behave just like Gawker Media’s irreverent Deadspin and Vox’s SB Nation (both 2005). In the last instance, their success is ultimately measured by their financial viability.

Money matters: this is not news. Nevertheless, understanding how these outlets turn a profit requires more skill than the ability to balance a ledger. In fact, aesthetic practices—including, of course, the “What if I told you…” voiceover introductions used in commercial teasers for ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries—are central to sports media’s profitmaking impulse.

ESPN

University of Illinois Press, 2015

In Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media, reviewed yesterday by Stephen Townsend, Travis Vogan demonstrates that NFL Films use a set of editing techniques and solemn voiceovers to train viewers how to watch and value football. Vogan’s follow-up work, ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire, extends that methodology to assess how the “worldwide leader in sports” has conscientiously undertaken a series of efforts not usually associated with sports broadcasting and journalism in order to keep viewers’ eyes glued to its content. In short, ESPN has ventured into documentaries, magazines, scripted and reality television, and online longform journalism in order to build a brand that differentiates itself from its competitors—and makes money in the process.

Vogan differentiates his own study from other sports media scholarship through his emphasis on ESPN’s brand. This focus allows him to move beyond ideological critique of isolated artifacts toward a richer understanding of the “sometimes slippery matrix of cultural and commercial forces” that dictate ESPN’s programming decisions (p. 5-6). Vogan also offers something different than the exposés of Michael Freeman and James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. For instance, Miller and Shales’ Those Guys Have All the Fun uses oral history to recreate the workplace culture and interoffice feuds of Bristol’s early years; in contrast, Vogan is more interested in how ESPN sets itself up as both a cultured tastemaker and a ubiquitous cultural presence—the perfect blend of ordinary and extraordinary that appeals to middlebrow tastes and the much sought-after young male demographic that advertisers covet.

Each chapter of Vogan’s book focuses on a different ESPN project. This organizational structure allows Vogan to proceed chronologically through ESPN’s forays into new revenue streams, but it also allows him to evaluate the work of “generic ideologies”, the prevailing cultural beliefs and attitudes associated with particular modes of communication (p. 4). ESPN plays into and builds upon generic conventions in order to gain legitimacy, then tweaks those generic conventions in order to distinguish itself further. This line of inquiry is best sustained in Vogan’s chapter on the SportsCentury documentary series. The style of the show—characterized by orchestral music and golden-hued interviewees shot in medium close-up—“fashions a sober, scholarly historical register” that authorizes the network as a trustworthy and objective chronicler of sports history (p. 46). With that task accomplished, ESPN is able to purchase possible upstarts, such as the Classic Sports Network (later rebranded as ESPN Classic), and expand its holdings by gobbling up other networks’ archives. The breadth of ESPN’s library, as flaunted by the show Cheap Seats (2004-2006), offers an implicit visual argument: If ESPN doesn’t own the rights to a sports broadcast—and ESPN houses even the most trivial shows, from fly fishing programs to decades-old World’s Strongest Man competitions—it must not be important (p. 65-67). As Vogan explains, “ESPN’s ambitious documentation of sport’s past is partly organized around an effort to limit the historical content that circulates in popular media culture” (p. 64). The archive is a technology of memory; when linked to the documentary genre, it becomes a framework through which ESPN acquires cultural prestige and controls viewer habits.

Some of the examples that Vogan considers demonstrate clear antagonistic relationships where ESPN challenges a rival. Upon acquiring ESPN in 1995, Disney CEO Michael Eisner (perhaps apocryphally) called Ted Turner, who owned Turner Broadcasting Company, and threatened to quash flagship magazine Sports Illustrated because Turner attempted to launch a twenty-four-hour sports channel, CNN/SI (74). Regardless of whether personal revenge was actually vowed, the end product, ESPN The Magazine, can only be read in light of its extension of ESPN’s televisual style and in contrast to Sports Illustrated’s staid weekly retrospectives. Oversized and glossy, ESPN The Magazine’s colorful hot takes attempt to steal a younger demographic before they can become attached to SI. Furthermore, ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” can be read as a critique of “the diminutively arranged bodies” of women that SI’s annual “Swimsuit Issue” ogles (p. 77). That the magazine is not a bastion of progressive body politics is unimportant; ESPN The Magazine simply needs to be better than whatever else is on the market in order to win plaudits.

At other moments, ESPN is less interested in competition than securing mutually beneficial relationships. By luring revered sportswriters such as David Halberstam, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ralph Wiley to write for Page 2 (p. 80-82); by partnering with Tribeca to host an annual sports film festival (p. 124); and by pairing with Dave Eggers’ nonprofit McSweeney’s Publishing to release quarterly print volumes of Grantland-related material (p. 161-165), ESPN and its partners both benefit. Spike Lee’s Kobe Doin’ Work (2009) indicated to other filmmakers that ESPN was serious about providing documentarians the ability to tell the stories they wanted without excessive network oversight. The “Spike Lee Joint” helped build the subsequent 30 for 30 series—and remember, documentaries cost significantly less to research and produce than live event programming—even as the renowned filmmaker enhanced his status as the country’s top celebrity basketball fanatic.

As recent events have shown, ESPN ends its partnerships when they no longer benefit its brand—or that of its most cherished partner, the National Football League (NFL). From the cancellation of the original entertainment melodrama Playmakers to ESPN’s withdrawal of its name from the PBS Frontline investigative report based on Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s League of Denial, harming the NFL’s image seems to be the surest way that ESPN believes it will harm its own. As Vogan writes of the Frontline debacle, “ESPN sacrificed a fifth Peabody to kowtow to its most valuable client. The incident usefully illustrates the limits of ESPN’s cultural aspirations. It will attach its brand to a Hunter S. Thompson column that insults the president, but not to a PBS documentary that critiques the NFL” (p. 174). Any amount of bad public relations—being accused of “checkbook journalism” or acting as handmaiden to America’s most powerful sports league—is a preferable alternative to losing the ability to broadcast NFL games.

Crossing the NFL also helped lead to the conclusion of Bill Simmons’s tenure at the “worldwide leader in sports.” Simmons—a former Page 2 columnist, executive producer of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series, and founder of Grantland, whose willingness to push the network into different media and genres epitomized ESPN’s growing cultural prestige—found himself at odds with his employer over how he discussed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic assault case. Combined with Simmons’s exorbitant salary and reportedly prickly personality, ESPN shed its most prominently institutionalized dissident voice.

Simply because of the long lead-up time required to publish an academic monograph, Vogan is unable to address all the nuances of this situation. However, it’s impossible to read much of the final chapters of the book without thinking of what’s happened to Simmons and Grantland since the book went to press. His saga provides an instructive case of what happens when an individual brand—Simmons was half-mockingly referred to in Bristol as “The Franchise”—butts heads with a corporate brand. In order to maintain his authenticity among his core group of followers, which included not only his readers but also his staff at Grantland, Simmons continued to speak his version of truth to power, believing the network likely had to suffer his slings and arrows and clamors for greater resources. ESPN called his bluff.

Without its star helmsman, Grantland lost much of its prestige and money-making potential. Partly because it had no direct competitors for cultural prestige, ESPN’s foremost loss leader—essentially, an outfit that wins critical acclaim but fails to turn a profit—was shuttered on October 30, 2015. In his introduction, Vogan gives pride of place in his introduction to a corporate maxim reportedly located in former ESPN President Steve Bornstein’s office: “Kill the ones that will eat us. Eat the ones we kill” (p. 9). The case of Grantland is not the first time—and will likely not be the last time—when ESPN feels compelled to kill and eat one of its most beloved young.

Things fall apart; how long can the center of the sports media universe hold? Despite its forays into media and genres that build its brand and help the network acquire cultural prestige, ESPN’s profit-center remains the live coverage of sporting events. The rights to this coverage are exorbitant, and television cable consumers currently pay more than $6/month for ESPN (p. 175). As the number of people signing up for cable begins to contract—ESPN has reportedly lost more than 7 million subscribers in the past four years—when will the much-desired channel unbundling be loosed upon the nation?

Vogan offers three central lessons to anyone interested in the study of sports media. First, he demonstrates that the textual analysis of sports media must be accompanied by an understanding of industrial imperatives. Changes in media policy affect the sports media ecology; no analysis is complete without understanding the interaction of medium, genre, and style alongside financial considerations related to production and distribution. Second, Vogan cautions us to be skeptical of any ex nihilo origin stories concerning particular sports media projects: ESPN’s live coverage grew out of 1970s sports television specials, just as 30 for 30 grew out of HBO Sports and Grantland attempted to resurrect the guiding spirit of The National while nominating Grantland Rice as a literary forebear. As in Keepers of the Flame, the evocation of antecedents and intertextual allusions are central techniques through which sports media institutions build their brands. Finally, Vogan practices a crafty set of rhetorical strategies that position him uniquely within the field. His tendency toward description over evaluation, and his preference to use the voice of industry and media sources to lobby his most damning critiques, may seem insufficiently critical of ESPN to some. However, I read in Vogan’s style an attempt to wed the professional and critical dispositions now pulling the field of communication and sport toward potentially clashing sets of educational and financial objectives.

Because of Vogan’s efforts, ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire is a successful, innovative, and easily accessible monograph. It belongs in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms in fields such as sport history, journalism, media studies, communication, public relations, cultural studies, and American studies. Although not considered in his monograph, Vogan’s focus on branding could easily be put in ongoing conversations about the work of ethos in rhetorical studies, and his work also evokes James English’s scholarship on the economy of cultural prestige and the sociology of literature.

Academics and non-academics alike should be excited to see what project Vogan undertakes next. Personally, I hope he extends his duo of books on the rise and consolidation of sports media institutions with a third that considers the decline and fall of various sports media outlets. Grantland, certainly, deserves to be eulogized and explained at greater length, and as many media theorists have noted, we often learn as much from defunct technologies as we do from dominant trends. And when Vogan crafts the narrative, both financial imperatives and aesthetic intricacies are revealed. Whether sports media win or lose money is important—but so is how they cover the game.

Kyle R. King is a sport rhetorician housed in the English Department of Penn State University. His dissertation, “Athlete-Activists and the Rhetorical Analysis of Sports Spectacle,” examines the possibilities and limitations that athletes face as social and political agents in the context of a spectacular sports media environment.

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