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The Worldwide Leader in Schadenfreude

For the first time in 40 years, people aren’t just criticizing ESPN. They’re savoring its decline.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Last week, I clicked over to my local college football message board and found a victory party that had nothing to do with recruiting. A group of sports fans were savoring ESPN’s decline. The occasion wasn’t even a bad day for the Worldwide Leader, by recent standards — just an announcement about talent-shuffling on SportsCenter. Still. Some posters clucked about ESPN’s politics. Some focused on race. ("I wonder who the token white will be.") One poster wrote: "Die, ESPN, die."

It has never been hard to find a sports-media type who secretly rooted for ESPN to get some comeuppance or another. But the idea that the public at large would be in on this — that it would relish ESPN’s struggles in a karmic way — is fairly new. It’s a condition newspapers and the "Big 3" broadcast networks know well. Welcome to the age of ESPN schadenfreude.

Historically speaking, it’s stunning that sports fans would root against ESPN. Fox Sports’ Clay Travis claims "middle America" is culturally alienated from the network. But for the better part of three decades, what just about every fan felt toward ESPN was intense cultural identification. If ESPN had fans, not viewers — in Bob Ley’s formulation — it’s because the network seemed to love sports as much as fans did.

Programmed into ESPN’s best shows was a populist streak — a sense that it was taking the piss out of sports. In 1996, Spin noted that "the articulate and acerbic anchors of SportsCenter speak for that most ignored element in the sports equation: the fan." Keith Olbermann told the magazine that ESPN hosts were like the idiot fans that had run out onto the field but, in a weird twist of fate, were asked to stay.

Before ESPN was accused of being "liberal," conservative columnist George F. Will was one of the network’s most vocal admirers. "If someone surreptitiously took everything but ESPN from my cable television package," he wrote in 1994, "it might be months before I noticed." Now, critics are saying the opposite: that if all ESPN’s TV offerings disappeared except for a handful of big games, no one would much miss them. In fact, they would smile.

Why would anyone be smiling about ESPN’s decline? Well, the biggest reason is the simplest: ESPN was too big to fail — or so we were told. Just four years ago, an Atlantic article called "The Global Dominance of ESPN" reported that the network was thriving thanks to high subscription fees, savvy rights deals, and a lustrous brand. "Other networks need to create hits," Artie Bulgrin, an ESPN executive, told the magazine. "We don’t. We are a destination network, not a network with destination programming. People tune in to ESPN without even knowing what’s on."

Jack Shafer — a Politico press critic who doubles as my spiritual adviser — noted that this kind of chest-beating makes media schadenfreude all the richer. "They make ’em build their own gallows and string ’em up," he said. Perhaps ESPN’s gallows are built in its $125 million studio.

ESPN schadenfreude is further enhanced by the way the network behaved in its world-domination phase. It wasn’t great about crediting competitors with scoops. When the NFL was displeased with its reporting or original programming, ESPN sometimes rolled over. And since adding print to its purview, a wide swath of sports journalists can claim to have been fired, laid off, or ignored altogether by ESPN, creating an army of eager critics. (This is probably the place to note that The Ringer is populated by writers who worked at Grantland.)

ESPN schadenfreude is also infused with ESPN nostalgia. The network’s loudest critics are 30- and 40- and 50-somethings. As with summer-movie reboots, what the ESPN generation seeks is less a bygone editorial standard than an unrecoverable time in their lives. To compare the "new" ESPN to the Star Wars prequels would be too harsh. But if you listen to the way haters describe The Force Awakens — as a remixed, less satisfying version of the original — you hear echoes of the way critics talk about ESPN.

All those feelings are understandable, up to a point. But ESPN’s critics tend to mention these things only in passing, if at all. Their critiques basically amount to: Whatever thing I already hated about ESPN is what’s causing its decline.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Jason Whitlock wrote that ESPN lost its "risk-taking" spirit when it succumbed to a code of political correctness enforced by Deadspin. Whitlock listed eight hosts or shows that were bedrocks of the older, jauntier ESPN, from Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd to the World Series of Poker.

It’s worth considering the list in full. Bayless and Cowherd left ESPN for FS1 … after ESPN reportedly offered them millions to stay. The other six hosts or shows on Whitlock’s list are still on the air. (Last week, ESPN announced a deal to keep poker on the network until 2020.) It almost looks like ESPN has done everything it could to maintain its former glory.

Also: What does "risk-taking" mean? For me, opening SportsCenter with a tribute to A Different World seems like a pretty wild idea. Maybe Whitlock prefers Woody Paige chewing scenery on Around the Horn.

Clay Travis’s piece about the layoffs contained another tenet of ESPN schadenfreude: using the network’s decline to boost one’s own fortunes. Travis bragged that his Outkick the Coverage empire "is growing like gangbusters" while ESPN has been "firing people left and right." If one of ESPN’s problems is its expensive rights deals with the NFL and NBA, then, yes, it’s true that Outkick the Coverage has skillfully avoided such deals. So, point to Travis, I guess.

Other critics aren’t smiling about ESPN’s decline but nonetheless have their own diagnoses of the aftermath. The Nation’s Dave Zirin rightly noted that the May layoffs claimed some of ESPN’s most dogged reporters. He also argued: "The line between entertainment and journalism at ESPN has never been fuzzier."

See, I disagree. ESPN has walked that fuzzy line for its entire existence. "One of the things they tell you when you start at ESPN is to think of what you do as ‘infotainment,’" the anchor Linda Cohn has noted. What was Dan and Keith’s "Big Show" if not a journalism-entertainment hybrid? What’s 30 for 30? College GameDay? Mike & Mike? PTI? In his magazine work, Wright Thompson is the epitome of a capital-J journalist. But what about the times Thompson supplies opening narration ("Miami is, at first light, a series of islands …") for events ESPN pays millions to televise?

Moreover, I think the fuzzy realm between journalism and entertainment is where ESPN does some of its best work. SportsCenter didn’t become a national obsession because it was the PBS NewsHour. It became that because anchors were clever and one of them did a Scarface impression.

Author Jeff Pearlman offered a similar theory of decline. ESPN cast its lot with Stephen A. Smith instead of dozens of workaday journalists, he argued, and "we (as a people) decided we prefer personalities and pizzazz over substance and detail."

This theory was a real crowd-pleaser, especially for workaday journalists. But look at ESPN’s newly announced schedule to see what "personalities and pizzazz" really means. You won’t find many Stephen A.’s. Instead, you find journalists like Scott Van Pelt, Pablo Torre, Bomani Jones, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, Bob Ley, Rachel Nichols, and Dan Le Batard. ESPN has also given pushes to Mina Kimes, Bill Barnwell, and Zach Lowe; it has funded the long-range reporting of Don Van Natta Jr. and Steve Fainaru. Thompson, who has reached the Operating Thetan level of longform, was one of the stars of ESPN’s upfront.

I’d be interested in hearing an argument that the above cast lacks "substance," or that writers like Barnwell and Lowe don’t draw us a warm bath of "detail" every time they write. The idea that "personality" gives a media member an edge — or, at least, a better shot at hanging on to their job — is as old as ESPN. Hell, it’s as old as sportswriting.

ESPN isn’t the first media entity to be visited by schadenfreude. For decades, newspapers and the TV networks have bled publicly while critics chuckled at their fate. If you look at their example, you can more or less predict how ESPN will be perceived by the masses.

First, it’s going to be an incredibly long, grueling period. Consider the networks. Books chronicling the Big 3’s diminishing profits, viewership, and editorial standards (like Ken Auletta’s Three Blind Mice or Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS?) have appeared regularly since the 1980s. All the while, network PR departments claimed that even if the Big 3 would never be as big again, they still commanded a giant audience in a fragmented world. But who wants to write that story?

Every new cord that’s cut will allow ESPN critics to further grind whatever ax they were already grinding. As the media world shifts, fewer people will subscribe to cable TV and Bomani Jones will keep tweeting. Someone — probably Clay Travis — will try to connect those two events.

ESPN executives will be treated like battlefield generals. An exec who didn’t cause, but nonetheless inherited, tough circumstances will become a scapegoat. Another who stanched the bleeding, even temporarily, will be hailed as a visionary.

Finally, even ESPN’s critics will get tired of schadenfreude. They’ll be inclined to have the opposite reaction: to cheer on ESPN’s "rebirth." Look at the way the Times and Washington Post — whose own declines were once lovingly chronicledare getting high-fived for filleting Donald Trump. Only when you read a nostalgic, slightly patronizing piece called "The Worldwide Leader Rises!" will you know the age of ESPN schadenfreude is finally complete.