WYSO

ESPN: Nobody Does It Bigger

Jun 14, 2011
Originally published on June 15, 2011 7:40 am

Now, in the heart of the baseball season, a time of NBA and NHL championships, another fabulous Nadal-Federer final, the start of golf's U.S. Open, the lockouts — continued and impending — in the NFL and the NBA, one name in sport still stands above the rest: ESPN.

Of course, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports always bestrides the athletic world like a colossus, but in the astrology of sport, this June has even more so been under the sign of the behemoth.

First, and most revealing, is what ESPN didn't do. It didn't buy the U.S. rights to the four Olympics beginning in 2014. It let NBC, owned by Comcast, pay through the nose to keep them. This absolutely stunned everybody in television. The Olympics are the diadem ESPN has never worn.

But the decision of the cable conglomerate — and remember, ESPN has more of what we now call platforms for the eye and ear than Manolo Blahnik has for the feet: at least a dozen TV outlets, a radio network, a magazine, and multiple Internet sites — the decision ESPN made suggests a diminished status for the Olympics.

In a lot of eyes the Olympics are now as much a festival as a competition. ESPN made every effort to successfully steal the rights to the World Cup away from NBC. You see, that's the epitome of passion in sport.

And if you also own rights to Major League Baseball, football and basketball, plus other world championships, then you don't need a pretty opening ceremony. What ESPN wants is blood-and-guts games and bouts, and races and matches — and so do its loyal fans' eyeballs.

The fact that ESPN didn't buy a ticket to ride the Olympics tells me the Olympics are now a silver medal in the United States.

Also this week, the monster new tell-all history of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales promptly hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list.

Details of the sexy shenanigans that go on at ESPN for lack of much else to do in Bristol, Conn., make for prurient reading, but the most fascinating part of the book is how long it took bankers and broadcasters to catch on to what a bonanza a sports network could be.

And this week also saw the introduction of a new website, financed by ESPN, dedicated to more long-form sportswriting. It's called Grantland, named for Grantland Rice, who was, for the first half of the last century, pre-eminent, a one-man sports journalism juggernaut — newspapers mostly, but also movies, radio, magazines. He wrote 67,000,000 words on sports, prose and poetry — an average of 3,500 words a day for 53 years. So it's certainly appropriate to name this site after him.

But still, not even Grantland Rice was ESPN. Nobody ever has been. In sports. In journalism.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So it's large. It's spreading and it has a way of consuming almost everything it wants. We could be describing the deer population or we could be talking about the reach of a certain sports network.

Here's our commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: Now, in the heart of the baseball season, a time of NBA and NHL championships, another fabulous Nadal-Federer final, the start of the U.S. Open golf, the lockouts continued and impending in the NFL and the NBA - still, one name in sports stands above all the rest: ESPN.

Of course, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sport always bestrides the athletic world like a colossus. But in the astrology of sport, this June has even more so been under the sign of the behemoth.

First, and most revealing, is what ESPN didnt do. It didnt buy the U.S. rights to the four Olympics beginning in 2014. It let NBC, owned by Comcast, pay through the nose to keep them. This absolutely stunned everybody in television. The Olympics are the diadem ESPN has never worn. But the decision of the cable conglomerate - and remember, ESPN has more of what we now call platforms for the eye and ear than Manolo Blahnik has for the feet - at least a dozen TV outlets, a radio network, a magazine, multiple internet sites. The decision ESPN made suggests a diminished status for the Olympics.

In a lot of eyes, the Olympics are now as much a festival as a competition.

ESPN made every effort to successfully steal the rights to the World Cup away from NBC. You see, thats the epitome of passion in sport. And if you also own the rights to Major League Baseball, football and basketball, plus other world championships, then you dont need a pretty opening ceremony.

What ESPN wants is blood-and-guts games and bouts and races and matches, and so do its loyal fans' eyeballs.

The fact that ESPN didnt buy a ticket to ride the Olympics tells me the Olympics are now a silver medal in the United States.

Also this week, the monster new tell-all history of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales promptly hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller List. Details of the sexy shenanigans that go on at ESPN - for lack of much else to do in Bristol, Connecticut - make for prurient reading. But the most fascinating part of the book is how long it took bankers and broadcasters to catch on to what a bonanza a sports network could be.

And this week also saw the introduction of a new website, financed by ESPN, dedicated to more long-form sports writing. Its called Grantland, named for Grantland Rice, who was, for the first half of the last century, preeminent - a one-man sports journalism juggernaut; newspapers mostly but also movies, radio, magazines. He wrote 67 million words on sports, prose and poetry, an average of 3,500 words a day for 53 years.

So its certainly appropriate to name this site after him. But still, not even Grantland Rice was ESPN. Nobody ever has been in sports, in journalism.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford is our one-man sports journalism juggernaut. They should have called that site Frank.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.