Saturday, May 17, 2008

Personnel Foul on ESPN



As I am writing this, I just finished watching the Utah Jazz lose to the LA Lakers and I am disappointed for two reasons. The first being that Kobe is closer to a championship and having his ego leave the stratosphere. The second reason is Kyle Korver, a great three point shooter, passed on the game tying shot in favor of Memo Okur(Rob, I can hear the "I told you so" all the way from Philly). It was the worst last second decision I've seen since Tyler Ecker decided not to lateral to Steve Breaston in the 2005 Alamo Bowl. But I digress.


In an interview last week with DEADSPIN.com's Will Leitch, popular ESPN writer Bill Simmons said last week that there is good reason for him writing less frequently these past few weeks. In the interview, Simmons expresses his displeasure with ESPN, saying that contract and content disputes have lead to him writing fewer pieces for the "World Wide Leader." Simmons recently signed a new contract with the network that has him at ESPN thru 2010. Simmons has most recently alluded to these conflicts in his podcasts with ESPN writer Jamele Hill, in which he makes reference to being unable to poke fun at one's own network (47 minutes into the 57 minute podcast). Simmons has even gone as far as setting up a "alternate blog" in which he posted a lengthy piece (15,000 words) about a high-school basketball team he followed from South Boston 15 years ago (the piece is the only story on the blog and it is unclear if Simmons will continue to update this page with material). Curiously enough, E:60 (a new investigative sports journalism program on ESPN that Simmons has done work for) has pulled Simmons' spots that were, as of last week, rated among the most popular video clips available. Coincidence? I highly doubt it.


This could not have come at a worse time for ESPN. The network just announced that it will add former CBS (and NBA on NBC alum) anchor Hannah Storm to its bullpen of Sportscenter anchors. Storm did a great job at NBC and should have an easy time getting back into it after taking a sports hiatus for CBS's The Early Show . In addition to this move, ESPN will add Rick Reilly (of Sports Illustrated's Back Page fame) to ESPN the Magazine. Reilly will also become the host ESPN's new show "Homecoming." Reilly will interview sports figures in their hometown (the premiere episode featuring Charles Barkley from his hometown of Leeds, Alabama). The show is supposed to be an athlete version "Inside the Actor's Studio." With all these positive additions, the last thing ESPN wants is a public dispute with its most popular employee.





By bringing Reilly to the "ESPN Family", it gives ESPN the two most popular sports writers (in terms of audience size) in all the land. While their main demographics are somewhat different (Reilly's readers are usually found to be somewhat older than the Simmons' demographic), the loyalty the readers show towards their writing is almost unparalleled in the realm of sports journalism. SI's readership has dropped considerably since Reilly left, a strong indication of the void left by Reilly's readers. Because of this predictable spike in readership at ESPN, my prediction is that ESPN the Mag will start to phase out Sports Illustrated the same way SI phased out the Sporting News years ago. I am willing to guarantee you will almost certainly see this change occur within the next five years



All this, of course, is contingent on what happens with Simmons. ESPN now has the opportunity to take a huge chunk of revenue away from SI, their biggest competition in print media. However, Simmons is a key ingredient in making this possible. He is currently ESPN's most popular writer and has the most potential as a versatile and marketable entity. He has the most successful column and podcast on the ESPN website, and is a guaranteed ratings increase whenever he is on E:60 (I'd love to see what the ratings are like when he does pieces as opposed to when he isn't on the show). He brings in a loyal fan base that visit ESPN.com religiously to read his articles. If Simmons were to leave the network, the decrease in viewers of the web site (and Magazine) would be astonishing. The fact that Simmons is the only writer to have an entire page (The Sports Guy's World) devoted to only his writing is a telling statistic.



By alienating Simmons, ESPN could potentially alienate their chances at controlling the marketplace in sports journalism for years to come.

4 comments:

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