Friday, September 21, 2007

Biting The Hand That Feeds Us Part Deuce

hey remember when I did this?

What MUST Jeff Pearlman think about our gratitude. This time it's cw "soapboxes" edition...and doesn't have so much to do with Jeff.

In a recent interview with our noble patron Jeff "Fire Joe Torre" Pearlman, Larry B. asked the erstwhile columnist about regional bias. Larry inquired whether this bias was a natural side-effect of the print media or something that should be looked at as a serious problem. Pearlman gave his honest opinion, and should be commended for that. However, his opinion is problematic and full of leaps in logic (and judgment). It's not that Pearlman's the problem--far from it. The problem is that sports journalism, more and more, has become a black hole of flawed mentalities of coverage.

Far be it for me to tell ESPN how to market their "sports entertainment programming," but...well...I'm going to tell them how to market their "sports entertainment programming."

Here's Pearlman's response to Larry's question:

JP: I don't have a problem with it. Eight million people live in New York City. That's eight million people (well, not all of them) who live and die with the Mets and Yankees. Milwaukee, on the other hand, is home to approximately 550,000. To suggest fans care about both teams equally is illogical. When I was in college at the University of Delaware, our student newspaper would give the same coverage to swimming and diving as we did men's basketball. Then we realized six people were reading swimming and diving stories. So we stopped writing about it.

Basically, Pearlman makes some valid points here on a very general level: sports are not politics, science, or any other sphere covered by the American press. Sports are entertainment, plain and simple, and should be treated as such. Sports isn't news except to the extent that they effect the economy or impose on the society as a whole (i.e. The Juice and his endless string of murders and memorabilia robberies). Therefore, it stands to reason that the biggest news should be reserved for the biggest fan bases--supply and demand and so forth.

Fine. Good. I'm the last one to say the WNBA should get any sort of coverage because of "Good Fundamental Basketball". I'm the last person to care how the L.A. Clippers are doing, even if they're doing reasonably well and that's a "Good Story". I'm the last person to demand MLS air on prime time tv just because "The Rest Of The World Cares About Soccer So We Have An Obligation To Care About Soccer." I'm not that guy. Seriously. The only obligation sports journalists have is to report the biggest stories in an informed, professional manner.

That's the issue--what determines the "biggest stories"?

In the answer to Larry's question, Pearlman tellingly mentions the New York area and how its disproportionately large fanbase makes sports in that region a bigger story than in the much smaller area of Milwaukee, WI. This is a telling argument in that it exposes the flaw in the perceived righteousness of nationwide sports journalists (particularly ESPN journalists).

Fact of the matter is, the New York Yankees do merit coverage on popularity alone. NY is a much bigger city than any other city in the US. Excellent. However, this appeal to numbers begs the question of why teams in relatively small markets (Boston, Philadelphia) get preferential treatment to teams in large markets like Houston or Los Angeles. Is this the East Coast bias we've heard so much about?


But most likely the answer lies in what the producers of sports related websites, magazines and television programs WANT to be a big story. Take for instance my oh-so-beloved Irish's cataclysmic embarrassments on the field. Truly this is a story for the ages--traditionally excellent football program has unimaginably horrible season. All the stats prove that this is a historically awful season for a once proud franchise.

HOWEVER, the coverage of this collapse by ESPN is telling in regards to how a portion of the sports media manufactures a self-replenishing story. Observe:

1.) Notre Dame is no longer a football powerhouse. If they're lucky they'll be ranked in the top 15 come year end (it's been 14 years since they have had a legitimate claim to National Title Contender). If they're real lucky they'll win a bowl game (though they haven't in more than ten years).

2.) Notre Dame is having an awful year, but the statistics used to prove how awful they are are distorted at best. Current sports media manufactures artificial stats at an alarming rate. To digress, how many times do we have to hear "this is only the third person to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning against a team with a .274 batting average or better."? What do these stats prove? What does "this is the first time Notre Dame has lost 4 games in a row by a total of 35 or more" do to prove anything besides that they have been losing by a relatively large margin? It has no historical significance, even in the context that Notre Dame is nowhere near the program it was 15 years ago.

3.) Overexposure followed by complaining about overexposure. Do we really need segments on SportsCenter interviewing current ND students about their thoughts on the season? Do we need Regis Philbin on SportsCenter talking about how he feels about the Irish's offensive line? All this will do is give female-genitalia-faced Mark May more ammo when he talks about the overexposure and constant overhyping of the Irish. Sure, this start is awful and the Irish offense has been surprisingly bad, but this exposure is unprecedented for an 0-3 team...especially one that all the experts predicted to be lousy.

So thus the process is set in motion:

1.) take a non-story

2.)pump it up with artificial statistics and sound bytes that you get from round-the-clock mic-pushing until it seems like a much bigger deal than it is

3.) assure that even if the story disappears, THE ACTUAL ACT OF YOUR DISTORTION will be a story

You see this beyond ND, with stories like TO (I actually heard discussions on ESPN whether the media's constant mic-pushing is the reason for his bad rep, and debating the reasons why he's been relatively uncontroversial this year), Bill Belichek-gate, Ron Artest, and so on.

But the big reason why I bring this up, and now I come full circle, has to do with Mr. Pearlman's employer's pet-team:

The Boston Red Sox. A team from a non-huge metro area that gets nearly round-the-clock coverage. Can an argument be made that they have their merits (sort of big, widespread fanbase, general success and postseason aspirations, colorful personnel) but not much more so than any big city team (LA, San Diego, NY Mets, Phillies, Indians). The problem is that the media (particularly ESPN) members just so happen to be Red Sox fans. Period. Therefore, they're convinced, like any fan of any team, that their team is totally definitely interesting to the world. Is it unconscious or conscious? is a question that is hard to answer, but this process is in full-swing:

1.) Boston New York is a generally interesting rivalry with some historical significance, including some extremely memorable moments, but on the whole no more rich or interesting to non-fans than rivalries between other historical teams with an equally large fan base (Giants/Dodgers, Cubs/Cardinals)

2.) network plays it up in interest of good story, focusing more on sporadic moments and stats of interest instead of that largely the rivalry has been uninteresting and a non-rivarly between teams that were alternately non-contenders

3.) consequently the ensuing media circus ensures that there are high tensions, both among the players AND the viewing public, during the series so that broadcasters can focus on that in subsequent broadcasts, harping on things like "wow, this is the most exciting rivalry in baseball."

Think back 10 years. Did anyone really give a shit about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, aside from Yankees or Red Sox fans? Think back 20 (before my time so someone will have to help me out). This is a relatively new thing that we are ALL supposed to care about this rivalry.

This is a self-feeding story--one that's made villains out of players (who subsequently become embarrassingly huge stories and the subject of the purplest of prose...i.e. A-Rod) and heroes out of players, and fucking most embarrassingly of all, has raised our awareness of a now dead dwarf. A fucking dwarf.

In conclusion, thanks for the interview, Jeff Pearlman, but I fucking hate ESPN


pnoles said...

Not angry enough. F minus :p

But yeah, good points. I'm pretty much of the same point of view.

larry b said...

i think you might be forgetting the fact that johnny damon used to play for the red sox........ BUT NOW HE PLAYS FOR THE YANKEES!!!

hello? clearly you missed that angle.

eriz said...

fyi... Philly is the 5th biggest city in the US. Boston (at ~500,000) is the 25th biggest city. But all of these stats are misleading, because of regional following. The Red Sox are loved all over New England, so they have a rather large following.

How extensively a team is covered is determined to a large extent by the fan base. The Rockies don't get jack shit for coverage, and maybe that's because Denver (and Colorado) aren't exactly population meccas in the US. Look at a team like the Broncos though. They get pretty decent coverage in the national press; Why is that? it may have something to do with the fact that they've been pretty darn sucessful for the past 15 or so seasons. But I think a large factor is that the Broncos are a regional team. People from all over the western states root for the broncos. The same can't really be said for the rockies.

While I agree that larger markets and fan bases should allow for more coverage, I do think the amount of time dedicated to big market teams is disproportional to the number of fans. The yankees probably get ten times more coverage than a team like the braves... but are there ten times more yankees fans watching ESPN than braves fans? No.

In an ideal free market, coverage should be spread out entirely on what sports fans want to see. unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. ESPN has a stranglehold on national sports media, and they have no market obligation to cover each team fairly.

I liken it to the 90s with cable news. CNN dominated the TV news business. Then came Fox News, who blew CNN out of the water. Why was this? CNN had their agenda of how they wanted to present the news (and i'm not just talking about thier supposed "liberal bias"), and had no need to change it. Fox challenged that notion, and it turns out that they found somthing that TV viewers wanted: sensational, fast paced news with a greater emphasis on right wing issues.

I hope the same thing happens to ESPN. Fox Sports has done very well in reginal markets but they have yet to even come close to challenging ESPN in the national market. Unfortunately, ESPN acts and looks more like Fox News than I am even comfortable thinking about.

There has got to be a demand for a network that is the opposite of ESPN, I just don't know how large of one. I, as a Rockies fan, would rather see more stuff about the Brewers, Twins, Astros, Mariners, etc. than the same old Yankees/Sox/Mets/Cubs/Dodgers shit over and over again. I can't be alone. I guess we'll have to see if someone can take this idea and make it work.

In the mean time: Skip Bayless, please tell me more about the Mets losing to the Marlins being a result of the mental stranglehold the Phillies have over the mets. Yes, he really said that today.

larry b said...

skip bayless really gets too much of a free pass here at firejay. i need to crack down on him a little bit. the problem is ESPN doesnt let him near a keyboard anymore, so in order to do this "cracking down", i'm going to have to watch first and 10. ugh. i'll consider it.

eriz said...

yeah I'm a machocist for that kind of shit. I watched first and 10 today.

p.s. chris w: you're a big fucking jerk

Chris W said...

a.) i was totally pwned nearly immediately by larry on that philly tip. consider me doubly pwned.

oh well the point remains i guess. substitute "my balls" for "philly"

b.) i am a big fucking jerk

Anonymous said...

"Fact of the matter is, the New York Yankees do merit coverage on popularity alone. NY is a much bigger city than any other city in the US. Excellent. However, this appeal to numbers begs the question of why teams in relatively small markets (Boston, Philadelphia) get preferential treatment to teams in large markets like Houston or Los Angeles. "

Philly is the 4th largest media market in the US, Boston is 7th. LA is 2nd, Houston 10th. So the "small markets" side of the argument doesn't hold much water. though it's still valid to question why teams in Boston & Philly get more exposure than LA & Houston.