2016 has been an “interesting” time to be in the sports media, much like the midst of the 2008 financial crisis was an “interesting” time to be entering the job market. We have witnessed a marked decline in ratings for sports debate programming. In swift order, ESPN has gone from Disney profit-engine to purported liability.
At the risk of sounding a bit glib, it’s worth asking whether sports debate is dead, or at least dying. It’s becoming much harder to talk about sports, for external and internal reasons.
The 2016 Presidential Election had a definite effect. It was more than a fascinating distraction. The past few years have polarized both the sports media and the sports audience. ESPN and Fox Sports have all but drawn explicit political lines. Politics is where the audience is. Politics is what moves the audience. Sports’ biggest issues – Colin Kaepernick’s flag protest – have become proxy political and cultural battles.
With Donald Trump ascending to the Presidency, we appear destined for years of acrimony, sweeping change, and foundational instability. It’s hard to see a return to the days where a Baseball Hall of Fame snub or the next equivalent of the Manning vs. Brady debate gets folks fired up.
Fragmentation afflicts sports media the same way it does news media, albeit with a less devastating effect on democracy. Fans are tailoring their news consumption and having it tailored by social media. That can be to the political left and right. That could be to their individual teams, regions, or interest.
There’s less of a national sports consensus with fans getting their news from Sportscenter and a few major outlets. Sports news comes from a proliferation of sources, often with fewer journalistic scruples and different sets of facts. Discussions are distinct, occurring in parallel, and seldom intersecting.
It has also become harder to talk about sports themselves. Advanced stats are fantastic. Sports analysis is smarter because of them. Statistical coverage is cheaper, which has opened doors to non-traditional outlets. But, it has also changed how we discuss sports. Talking about sports has become talking about value and efficiency or, to be blunt, math.
Math is a different language. It’s one many people don’t have a lot of fluency in, especially, say, humanities majors that tend to drift into journalism. Math, for most, is not bar talk or work break fodder. It’s not a discussion those without command of the subject can engage in.
Sports fans get numbers that elucidate debates they would have had. Discussions those numbers raise can be too arcane or just not entertaining. People gravitate to sports-related topics that aren’t really sports.
There’s little genuine, insightful reporting that goes beyond gossip. Games can produce flashpoints. But, when they don’t, trying to “advance” the sports discussion can feel like tapping a depleted well. Much of the “content” that emerges is about hypotheticals.
Media make projections and predictions. Way-too-early rankings. Hot seats. Picks. Mocking the NFL Draft has become a season unto itself. Few can break down what just happened. Almost anyone can posit what could or will happen.
Media advance the discussion chronologically. (A) just happened, you guys, which means (B) could happen. If (B) happens, there is a reasonable possibility of (C) which would be amazing. That’s 95 percent of regular season college football discussions.
What amounts to fake sports news bubbles up from a crack at the bottom of the well. The flimsiest pretext emits a scenario into the marketplace. The scenario is beyond improbable. It makes no logical sense. No one thinks it will happen. But, it would be interesting if it happened.
Media members talk about the scenario. It starts trending on social media platforms. Suddenly, Jim Harbaugh taking the Rams job is something he and we need to address.
Watching sports has always been an escape, which is why politics and other factors won’t kill it. Many of the most enduring attachments to teams – the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox, the “Miracle” Mets, Joe Namath’s Jets, Bo Schembechler vs. Woody Hayes – arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last time there was comparable tumult and discord.
The trouble is watching sports is becoming an escape from much of the discussion surrounding it.