Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ripping Yarn from ESPN Ombudswoman

Oh, what a fairy story the ESPN Ombudswoman weaves for us here! Unfortunately, I don’t believe much of it. I’m not calling her a liar; I think she believes every word she wrote. But that doesn’t make her accurate.

Schreiber would have us believe, against all logic and the functioning of every other successful communications outlet in the world, that ESPN does not “coordinate” their message. Apparently producers just choose random topics out of the air, which conveniently happen to align with network interests and dovetail on a common set of topics. And in related news, monkeys might fly out my butt.

It seems more likely to me that they take their cue from some original source, directed by the network hierarchy. Why else would John Amaechi’s book, Arena football, and NASCAR be such hot topics when otherwise they’d go relatively unnoticed? In fact, Arena football and NASCAR are not new at all, yet their ESPN coverage is. Any ideas why?

And on the flip side, how is it that no criticisms of ESPN or its affiliates ever seem to see the light of day at the network, and dissenters are ruthlessly crushed? Is it possible that this is a method of nonverbal communication?

Now for some fun with numbers. Here’s what ESPN says about Hockey coverage:

"We compared all the 1 a.m. shows during March 2007 with all the 1 a.m. shows in March 2004, the last year ESPN had hockey rights," said Craig Lazarus, vice president of studio productions, whose responsibilities include overseeing all productions of SportsCenter. "We found that in March 2004, hockey accounted for 20 percent of the Top Ten highlights. In March 2007, the percentage was 18 percent."
In all other segments of the 1 a.m. "SportsCenter," the show with the heaviest emphasis on highlights and events coverage, there were 29 fewer minutes of standard, daily NHL coverage in March 2007 than in March 2004. Those 56 seconds a day amount to a 28 percent decline in hockey's allotment of airtime, but I doubt that fully accounts for the feeling that hockey gets "no love" anymore.

So NHL coverage has dropped by 10% in the Top 10 highlights and 30% in coverage outside of the Top 10 highlights. To me that’s significant. They go on to say that since NHL2Night isn’t on any more, that’s probably why hockey fans are upset.

So basically, coverage of their sport dropped by 40% on Sportscenter and they lost 100% of the non-Sportscenter coverage. I don’t watch hockey, so it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other what happens to it. But these fans have a point: ESPN has just about dropped Hockey coverage.

As an excuse ESPN offers some tripe about the rights packages, etcetera. I’m pretty certain that if ESPN wanted to continue to do NHL2Night, they could. Hockey’s not going to turn its nose up at being on ESPN. But the fact is that since ESPN can’t derive profit from it, they ignore it.

The reverse is true for NASCAR and Arena Football. Now ESPN has profit motivation, so now they are in high gear to promote the sports (pardon the pun). I don’t believe for one second the part about “untapped fan bases” and the other nonsense. It’s money, pure and simple. But Schreiber is sure to toe the company line, letting us know how big a draw NASCAR is (bigger than Yankees-Red Sox!) to defend these decisions.

She also doesn’t seem to show any intellectual curiosity about whether or not it’s ethical for ESPN to own part of the AFL. My judgment, obviously, is that it isn’t.

What’s more, though, these are phenomenally bad business decisions! ESPN is going to try to push Arena football on a public that already has two professional leagues (NFL and college) and has resisted every other effort to introduce more football (USFL, anybody?). They’re antagonizing the 800-pound gorilla in the room (NFL) for what is probably a low-return proposition. They’re alienating hockey fans for no other reason than arrogance.

In short, they’re behaving as a classic monopoly. The end point of this behavior is pretty clear: a competitor will be born to address the problems they’ve created, and end up crippling their business.

Don’t believe me? Tell me how AOL, once in command of the Internet, has been doing lately.