As more fans cut the cord and go mobile, the network is busy protecting its cable-TV money machine.
The main SportsCenter studio at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., is a blue-lit box. The ceiling is as high as a cathedral’s, and there’s enough floor space to land a helicopter. Screens are everywhere. “We have about 150 different monitors in here and, of course, miles of LED lighting,” says Aaron LaBerge, the sports network’s chief technology officer, during a recent tour. The hosts’ desk faces a wall of screens that jut out and recede like a giant chest of drawers. To one side, there’s a six-panel touchscreen that can slide apart and come together with the push of a button; a more modest 84-inch touchscreen across the way displays an interactive bracket for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. The show’s producers can also summon virtual screens from the floor so that, say, the shooting stats of Oregon sophomore Tyler Dorsey can appear to viewers to float miraculously in the middle of the room. “It’s probably one of the most technically sophisticated broadcast and content centers in the world,” LaBerge says of the building that houses this studio and four others.
ESPN broke ground on this $175 million, 194,000-square-foot facility, called Digital Center 2, in 2011. It was billed by executives as “future-proof,” capable of adapting to any possible change in the way people watch sports. At the time, ESPN looked indestructible. Its namesake cable channel had just topped 100 million subscribers and was posting record profits for its parent company, Walt Disney Co., even as streaming apps such as Netflix were growing rapidly. Ratings for live sports, unlike almost everything else on TV, were soaring. And ESPN had big games year-round—Monday Night Football, college football bowl games, Major League Baseball’s opening day, and the NBA playoffs, to name a few. A cover story in this magazine in the fall of 2012dubbed ESPN the “Everywhere Sports Profit Network.”
Five years later the network’s profits are shrinking, and the 10,000-square-foot SportsCenter studio has already begun to look like a relic. The show’s formula, in which well-fed men in suits present highlights from the day’s games with Middle-American charm, is less of a draw now that the same highlights are readily available on social media. Viewership for the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, a bellwether for the franchise, fell almost 12 percent from 2015 to last year, according to Nielsen. Keith Olbermann, the SportsCenter-host-turned-political-commentator, put it bluntly on a podcast last year: “There’s just no future in it.”
The toxic pro-masculinity camp insists that mere “bumps and bruises” are the sport’s biggest dangers
Last week, I was asked to appear on “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s flagship news magazine, to discuss what football people tend to refer to, somewhat squeamishly, as “the Chris Borland situation.”
Last March Borland, a star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, shocked the sports world by announcing that he was quitting the game after just one season, because he feared he might suffer brain damage if he continued to play.
This was not exactly a far-fetched notion, given that the NFL itself had estimated—after years of denying any link between football and brain disease—that up to 30 percent of their former players would suffer from cognitive ailments such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
When I arrived at the studio, I was told I should be ready to discuss the “meaning” of the Chris Borland situation, which did not strike me as particularly elusive. When your employer announces in federal court documents that you have a one in three chance of being neurologically disabled in the course of doing your job, the smart money is on retiring.
Still, I was excited to record the episode because “Outside the Lines” is easily the most intelligent and journalistically sophisticated show within the vast and ever-expanding kingdom of ESPN. The program eschews bombastic punditry and slavish promotion (cue the highlight porn) in favor of in-depth reporting and conversation.
Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor who became a sports media pioneer because of his embrace of his race and unique style of highlight delivery, died Sunday after a long bout with cancer. He was 49.
Scott joined ESPN in 1993 and remained there throughout his career, working his way from a nightly role on ESPN2 to hosting gigs on ESPN’s NBA and NFL programming. But he will be remembered most for his time behind SportsCenter’s anchor desk, a position that made him a celebrity in the sports world and allowed him to leave an enduring mark on both ESPN and the sports media as a whole.
In a media world largely devoid of both African-American faces and, especially, African-American vernacular, Scott’s iconic catchphrases — “Boo-Yeah!”, “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” and “Can I get a witness?” chief among them — brought a style that had been absent from sports and media programming straight to ESPN’s most-watched program and, by virtue, to the living rooms of white and black families alike.
During an interview Friday with ESPN’s popular radio show “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” the president said that most of his mornings started with the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
“I spend most of my time watching ESPN in the morning,” President Obama said. “I get so much politics I don’t want to be inundated with a bunch of chatter about politics during the day.”
The president explained that watching ESPN’s “Sportscenter” while working out in the morning gave him a pretty good sense of the sports world because he doesn’t really have time to sit down and watch entire games.
However, he said that he’s sometimes able to watch major championships like the Super Bowl or the World Series.
Cowherd also asked the president if he thought social media had become too nasty towards professional athletes and even world leaders like himself.
“Social media does have this ability to channel people’s rage and frustration and sometimes nastiness in ways that polarize society,” the president replied. “The one difference is that, in politics, sometimes people forget, we’re actually all on the same team, and that’s the American team.”
The conversation with ESPN came at the end of a week that began with the president taking over Stephen Colbert’s anchor chair on “The Colbert Report.”
You can listen to the whole ESPN interview here.
First Published: December 12, 2014: 2:26 PM ET
WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented step, agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration conducted surprise inspections Sunday, targeting the medical and training staffs of visiting NFL teams, in an effort to determine whether they violated federal drug laws governing the handling and distribution of prescription painkillers, “Outside the Lines” has learned.
A federal law enforcement official, with knowledge of the investigation, told “Outside the Lines” the inspections were motivated by allegations raised in a May 2014 federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of several prominent NFL players, who allege team physicians and trainers routinely gave them painkillers in an illegal manner to mask injuries and keep them on the field.
Painkiller MIsuse By Retired NFL Players
In January 2011, ESPN reported on the first-ever study of painkiller misuse by retired NFL players. That study, funded in part by ESPN and with a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Among the key findings:
• Retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population.
• 52 percent of the retired players said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days.
• Of those who took the drugs while playing, 71 percent said they misused the drugs then, and 15 percent of the misusers acknowledged misusing the medications within the past 30 days.
— John Barr
“DEA agents are currently interviewing NFL team doctors in several locations as part of an ongoing investigation into potential violations of the Controlled Substances Act,” DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne said Sunday.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration has a responsibility under the Controlled Substances Act to ensure that registrants who possess, prescribe and dispense controlled substances are following the law,” Payne added.
Spokesmen for the San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks all acknowledged that DEA agents showed up to inspect their medical staffs after their teams’ respective road games Sunday.
“What we were told was they are random checks of team physicians as they travel to see if anyone is transporting controlled substances across state lines,” 49ers spokesman Bob Lange said after Sunday’s game against the Giants. “The 49ers medical staff complied and the team departed the stadium as scheduled.”