This semester, I had the opportunity to track ESPN for my multimedia storytelling course, analyzing the rhetorical and stylistic choices the online and television sports syndicate makes in its coverage of national and international sporting events.
From their use of alternative storytelling to the impact of their subsections and sister programs, I’ve developed a deeper, professional appreciation for ESPN beyond seeing it as just a regular stop for sports journalism. There are multiple standouts of their style that particularly struck me.
ESPN, through its more than 30-year existence, has operated mainly on a visual platform, first opening as a cable television station in 1979. Since then, they’ve expanded to digital mediums, operating a website and social media accounts across various platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
In keeping with recent times, ESPN has embraced “alternative storytelling” methods by incorporating tweets and Twitter Moments, Facebook and Instagram Live videos, Snapchat, and writing styles like listicles and interactives in their reporting.
ESPN has fun with its reporting, and this is reflected strongly and frequently in the ways they move beyond traditional hard news or feature articles and attempt to be hip and interesting to reach out to a younger generation of sports fans (more on this point later).
FiveThirtyEight and Data Journalism
What a wild game. pic.twitter.com/dIr0pd3z5S
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 6, 2017
ESPN is the parent company of FiveThirtyEight, an analysis and data journalism website run by Nate Silver, who initially rose to prominence with frighteningly-correct Super Bowl predictions.
FiveThirtyEight covers events and issues ranging from March Madness to presidential elections, tracks events in real-time with probability and projections, and later looks back on results versus their own predictions.
— Jody Avirgan (@jodyavirgan) January 25, 2017
Data and analytics are a crucial part of sports journalism. ERA, plus/minus — statistics are found across all sports. Hosting a data journalism site that is not solely limited to sports broadens ESPN’s range of potential readers as well as bolsters their credibility as a leader in the world of journalism.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 22, 2017
One conclusion I have drawn that particularly speaks to me is that ESPN does not take itself seriously — an observation to be interpreted in the best way possible. It is not stuffy, it does not play into too much sensation or drama, and it loves to make jokes about every player, every team, every moment and every game.
It’s the night before draft day… pic.twitter.com/MY1F5XuUt8
— ESPN (@espn) April 26, 2017
ESPN’s website and much of the programming on their flagship channel are mostly reflective of the wants of an older generation of sports fans: people (typically and stereotypically men) only watching or reading for information on their favorite teams.
On social media, however, gifs, memes, and other content like the video linked above represent ESPN’s appeal to a younger generation of sports fans, one that strives to have fun and report beyond boring facts and figures
(especially in times as stressful as draft season).
On Wed. April 26, ESPN announced that it would lay off nearly 100 on-air “personalities,” firing anchors and commentators on their various television programs in order to adjust their budget in a period of low subscription rate and an apparent shift in demand from visual to digital journalism.
I’ll check with Elias but this might be a record number of buzzwords in a “we’re laying off a bunch of people” announcement. pic.twitter.com/TiKXp8xdNH
— Barry Petchesky (@barry) April 26, 2017
The moment coincides well with my own personal departure from this academic look at ESPN’s journalism techniques. To adapt to new technological and cultural demands, broadcast and publication companies must be aware of trends, of the new ways people seek to absorb media, and to stay on top off these developments — or risk losing profits. ESPN is slipping, and these developments argue that they’re struggling to adjust to the rapidly-approaching future.