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ESPN Just Decided to Stop Sponsoring Sportswriting’s Most Prestigious Prize. Why?

After years of handing out PEN America’s literary award, the Worldwide Leader has decided to discontinue its partnership. What does that mean for the future of writing at the company?

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For nearly a decade, ESPN had two roles in the world of high-toned sportswriting: patron and kingmaker. ESPN published its own magazine writing from the likes of Wright Thompson. Then, partnering with nonprofit PEN America, the network handed out annual prizes for lifetime achievement in sportswriting (including recent winners Dan Jenkins and Roger Angell) and nonfiction sports book of the year (League of Denial; Boy on Ice). The two awards, maybe by default, were the most prestigious in sportswriting. Now, they’ve been eliminated.

“After 10 years of generous support,” PEN America said in a statement, “ESPN’s decision at this time is to pause its funding. They have been a wonderful partner and we’ve enjoyed working with them over the years to celebrate literary excellence.”

Asked why ESPN would stop funding awards that generated goodwill in the community of letters and cost only $10,000 per year in prize money, an ESPN spokesperson said: “ESPN reviews the awards and projects we can potentially support on a regular basis. As part of that review, we recently decided to explore other award sponsorship opportunities that will focus on developing and recognizing emerging sports journalists.”

One of the questions often posed to ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro is whether he’ll support sportswriting that annoys the network’s league partners. On multiple occasions he has. A slightly different question is whether Pitaro will be as devoted to writing, full stop, as his predecessor, John Skipper. In April, ESPN announced it was shutting down its print magazine.

“As we said the day we announced the magazine news, our journalists will continue to create the same exceptional content,” the ESPN spokesperson said, when asked whether sportswriting has a smaller place in the ESPN universe under Pitaro. “Consumer habits are evolving rapidly, and this requires ESPN to evolve as well. The only change here is that we are moving away from printing it on paper and sending it in the mail.”

It’s safe to say Pitaro’s regime doesn’t have the romance for print that Skipper and his lieutenants had. The PEN/ESPN prizes now feel like artifacts from the network’s High Longform period: when ESPN was run by one alumnus of Rolling Stone and curated by another; when an ESPN upfront, normally a showroom for TV stars, had Thompson sitting at a mock whiskey bar.

The lifetime achievement award was a clever way of connecting a big, impersonal network to the smoky print world inhabited by Jenkins and Angell. If ESPN would never be mistaken for Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, it could at least genuflect before it. “We’re trending towards instant analysis and quick hits and pithy tweets,” Jackie MacMullan, this year’s PEN/ESPN lifetime achievement award winner, said in her acceptance speech. “I want to commend ESPN for being committed to longform journalism.”

PEN America won’t give out sportswriting awards in 2020. A spokesperson said the organization hasn’t determined whether the awards will be rebooted.

“I was surprised to hear the PEN/ESPN award had bitten the dust,” John Schulian, the 2016 lifetime achievement winner, wrote in an email. “In a business that hands out awards like campaign buttons, it was one of the rare ones that really seemed to mean something. The idea that PEN would consider sportswriters part of the literary community was, if I may be so bold, thrilling. The folks at ESPN really must have done a great sales job.”

Schulian continued: “But when you think of those early winners—Roger Angell, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford—literature is what they gave us even if they would have been too modest to say so. I remember the pride I felt just being one of the judges that selected Dave Anderson for the award. When I won the award myself, I felt a sense of validation I’d never experienced before. I’m sorry that’s a memory more sportswriters won’t share with me.”