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The Impact of ESPN and Sports Television

November 15, 2010

The Sportscenter Desk has been a driving force in sports media for 30 years (espn.go.com)

Since the network’s introduction in 1979, ESPN has had a tremendous impact on sports and sports media.  First, the idea of a sports-only network separated the subject from the rest of the news.  Where traditionally sports journalism was presented alongside other subjects in a newspaper or nightly news broadcast, ESPN (along with magazines like sports illustrated and others) made sports the sole focus.

In addition, ESPN was influential in creating a national sports scene.  ESPN’s ability to offer up to date, 24/7 national sports news allowed fans, who had been previously limited to local teams and a few nationally televised games, to follow sports and leagues nationwide.

This new source of information changed the national sports culture.  For example, a fan in New York can watch highlights of a team in Seattle every night.  ESPN is therefore largely responsible for the increase in athlete celebrity.  Players who were formerly limited to local stardom could now gain national exposure on a nightly basis.

ESPN also changed the nature of sports stardom with what is probably their greatest innovation: The highlight reel, specifically top plays.  Since its beginning, Sportscenter has been the anchor of ESPN, and the programs primary function is providing nationwide sports news in the form of a highlight.  Naturally, a game highlight shows the most important plays from that game.  In addition, however, it tends to show the most exciting.  Now the players who gained the most national exposure were the ones wowing audiences with gravity-defying dunks and acrobatic touchdown catches.  Much has been said about the vanity of athletes these days, and the highlight, with it’s focus on individual skill and personality, is a large part of it.

Local sports networks obviously have had less of an impact on a national stage.  But they have still helped change sports media.  Along with ESPN, they have shifted a large part (and in many ways a majority) of sports journalism onto television.  The local networks, essentially, took the format of ESPN (constant updates, highlights, talk shows, etc.) and brought it back to a local, subjective focus.  This was a necessary development, as the generation that grew up with (or at least adopted) ESPN now expects that same treatment of their local teams.

(Take a look at this commercial for NESN’s Sportsdesk.  Remind you of any other marketing campaigns?)

In addition to changing the nature of being a sports fan, these networks altered the foundations of sports media.  Again, a significant part of sports journalism is now received via television, decreasing the importance of nightly news segments and newspapers.  Also, the 24/7 capability of television changed what we define as sports news.  With so much time to cover sports, stories can go beyond simple game results and analysis.

Out of this comes more human interest-style reporting.  The main result has been media that can sometimes blur the line between sports and other forms of journalism (most notably gossip and celebrity reporting).  This can be seen in Sportscenter segments like Who’s Now? and the sometimes incessant coverage of athletes like Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and Brett Favre.  Both have been widely criticized by people looking for a more traditional type of sports journalism.

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