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By Jack Shafer
The pompous slogan, "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," actually undersells ESPN's ultimate potential.
If the Bristol behemoth were a stand-alone company instead of a Walt Disney Co./Hearst Corporation co-venture, it would be the most valuable media property in the world, worth $40 billion against annual revenues of $10.3 billion, according to one estimate. Wherever sports happens or is discussed — cable, broadcast TV, radio, online, mobile and print — one ESPN tentacle can be found wrapped tight around it, squeezing out revenue, and the others probing for fresh sucking places. It speaks four languages in more than 61 countries and has a larger standing army than Canada. I made up that army fact, but if ESPN had one it would be the world's most predatory, profitable and entertaining.
Like Alexander the Great, ESPN has recorded so many victories in such a brief time that it will soon weep upon discovering that no additional sports worlds exist to conquer. The company has entered its mop-up phase, a place where most mature companies end up, doing more of what it does best, finding new ways to serve the old stuff, but not advancing at the old velocity. But if ESPN wanted to break out of the gold-plated sports ghetto that it now owns, what better strategy than to spend its millions refashioning itself as "The Worldwide Leader in News." International news. Political news. Domestic news. Cultural news. Business and financial news. Local news (it already has a sports presence in five top cities). Weather. And, yeah, even sports.
The idea isn't as fanciful as it seems. ESPN has been trundling in the news direction for a couple of decades now, at least since its executive editor John A. Walsh joined in 1988, and built out such franchises as ESPN Radio, ESPN The Magazine, its documentaries, the network's Outside the Lines investigative work (see this Bonnie D. Ford investigation on triathlon deaths and former New York Times-man Don Van Natta Jr.'s feature on the rise of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell), and more. Walsh notably raided newspaper sports sections for reporters, picking up such stars as Chris Mortensen and Peter Gammons. In 2011, ESPN added its Grantland website, a longform journalism site that weds sports to pop culture (examples, the Hollywood Prospectus blog and the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris).
ESPN's recent acquisition of statistician/journalist Nate Silver further extends the company's news reach. Silver, who started his journalism career in sports, will cover that topic and every news variety that generates numbers — politics and elections, economics, government, weather, science, culture, pick-up-sticks, et al. That's a roomy mandate. It's as if ESPN's chiefs flew Silver to the North Pole and said, "Son, everything south of here belongs to you." Silver's help-wanted shingle gives a sense of his ambitions, stating that candidates who bring writing chops, statistical savvy, and programming skills with them are more likely to win a job. "Let's say fewer things but be more correct about them," is Silver's editorial philosophy.
ESPN's plans to share Silver with corporate sister ABC News poses this question: Why not allow ESPN, which ate ABC Sports whole in 2006, to make a meal of ABC News as well? A historical precedent practically demands it. In 1977, Roone Arledge, the flashy auteur behind ABC Sports, became the president of ABC News, and made it both profitable and competitive with the better-established CBS News and NBC News.
"Arledge was ahead of other news executives in perceiving that one way to survive in network news today is to produce your way out, staking out new time-periods for news and creating a variety of outlets for news programming," Jane Hall of the Los Angeles Times reported in 1992. There's plenty from the Arledge era to disdain — his "soft" news breakthrough for one — but he dragged ABC News out of the 1950s and invested heavily in talent, gear and programming, and made it matter.
Of course, ABC News would make but an appetizer for the giant ESPN maw. But it would be a fine starting point for the sort of world domination of news that ESPN could achieve. In a sweeping Businessweek feature from the summer of 2012, Karl Taro Greenfeld reported on ESPN's competitive advantages over the other networks in its space (NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1, and TNT). ESPN, he wrote, can:
"Monetize live sports across multiple platforms. ESPN isn't just buying the rights to televise a game on TV, it's buying the rights to build hours of TV content around the game and to stream the action digitally and over its WatchESPN mobile application. Each live sporting event also generates advertising revenue on ESPN Radio, highlights for the ESPN networks' various studio shows and websites, plus fantasy league updates, streaming sports news content, and beyond."
With more platforms than the New York subway system at its disposal, ESPN has become the envy of every other entertainment and information site in the world, with the possible exception of the BBC. You have a tablet or a smartphone or a computer? ESPN has the platforms. Its expansion has been so aggressive that it entered and exited the 3-D broadcasting business before most people even knew that 3-D broadcasting existed.
Of course some people will say that asking ESPN to cover news would be like asking an elm tree to grow pears. While it has created a gargantuan audience worldwide, the network is well aware of its "female problem," that is, the fact that 70 percent of its audience is male. Try as it will to tamp down its men's locker room ethos with initiatives like ESPNW, it really hasn't made much progress. Would the female audience reject an ESPN news brand as too troglodyte?
The ways in which the network has soiled itself journalistically are cataloged on this Wikipedia page. There was the hagiographic Bonds on Bonds reality series in 2006 that sputtered to a premature death; The Decision, the 2010 special about LeBron James allegedly "making up his mind" about leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat; accusations that it pulls punches in its coverage of sports stars in legal trouble; its cancellation of Playmakers, a fictional series about the pro football "Cougars," because it ruffled the NFL. Said one ESPN executive to the New York Times, "It's our opinion that we're not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we've done it, and continued to carry it over the NFL's objections. To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner's face." ESPN owns rights to so many popular sporting events — NFL, MLB, NBA, college football playoffs, etc. — that the leagues end up owning the network's soul, is how the argument goes.
I won't defend ESPN's integrity, even though it allows plenty of debate in its many venues about who is right and who is wrong, and even though it has employed an ombudsman since 2005 (George Solomon, Le Anne Schreiber, Don Ohlmeyer, the Poynter Institute, and now Robert Lipsyte) to sort, air and shred the network's dirty laundry. The sports divisions of broadcasters have rarely distinguished themselves journalistically, and it's only in the last generation and a half that most sports sections and sports magazines have been as conscientious about getting the story as they were about entertaining their audience.
If ESPN isn't journalistically pure enough for you — and I would not hold you in poor esteem if you felt that way — it does employ a sufficient number of high-minded reporters and editors that my hypothetical news division could become the ethical equal of CBS News or the New York Times within the span of a finger-snap. ESPN's record of transgressions, if you want to call them that, vector closer to the offenses committed by pliable small-town newspapers seeking the favor of city fathers and business interests than they do crimes against journalism. At least ESPN's brass knows journalistic right from wrong, which will give them a leg up on the human conglomerates - Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Bezos and John Henry - each of whom have shook free millions to enter the journalism game. As has the emir of Qatar with his Al Jazeera America. By dint of their limited journalistic experience, these billionaires are as likely to commit fouls as an ESPN that decided to take on news.
If newspaper journalism ever enjoyed a golden age, it was the period from about 1970 to 2005, when consolidation of titles gave the surviving papers near monopoly power over mass market advertising in their markets. Chains like Gannett used the 30 percent margins to buy additional newspapers (and start USA Today). Other newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times similarly used the rising tide of profits to buy additional newspapers and diversify away from print. But these owners also diverted from the cash stream amounts sufficient to build out numerous foreign and domestic bureaus, establish investigative units, invest in the feature form, commentary, and arts coverage, and expand state and local coverage.
I cite that recent history because it illustrates that the bounteous meal that many newspapers served until recently was made possible by the excess of cash they had sloshing around and were apparently too embarrassed to forward all of it to stockholders. Only the New York Times continues to spend at its former clip on its newsroom (said to be between $200 million and $250 million a year). The volume of high quality news that we've become accustomed to was never a pure vanity play by publishers, although vanity had plenty to do with the newspaper Otis Chandler created out of the ragtag Los Angeles Times and the one the Graham family fashioned from the Washington Post they inherited. If money and good journalism correlate, then we would be remiss if we didn't urge the fat cats at ESPN to throw their money at news.
I'm not suggesting that ESPN approach such a venture as philanthropy, either. Fox News Channel earned an estimated $986 million in 2012, MSNBC $203 million, and CNN $413 million. (Don't let anybody tell you the broadcast news networks were public-service charities, either. They were almost always profitable.) The Walt Disney Co., which owns 80 percent of ESPN, and the Hearst Corp., which owns the remaining 20 percent, could make real money by assigning their shared property to invade the news business. Both the collapse of newspapers and the desertion of younger readers from newspapers and TV screens has created media opportunities that a host of new (and newish) operators have taken advantage of. In a recent PandoDaily piece, Hamish McKenzie and Sarah Lacy listed a variety of sites that have recently attracted investor capital to report on business, politics and culture. Vice Media, the piece notes, just sold a 5 percent stake to 21st Century Fox for $70 million, which translates into a $1.4 billion valuation for the whole company.
Who knows the young audience better than ESPN? "The brand discipline of ESPN is incredible," media historian Michael J. Socolow told me. "Any time you stumble across an ESPN product on the Web or TV, it's instantly identifiable by its high-quality aesthetics." Who already possesses the proper platforms to bring them news? Whaddya say, ESPN? Surely you have a spare $100 million a year you wouldn't mind investing in my idea. It can't be a worse idea than 3-D TV.
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)