The Fall of ESPN in the Integrated Spectacle

The recent turmoil at ESPN provides an interesting opportunity to see the spectacle of disintegration at work in a way that allows us to leave the bleak world of security and terrorism behind for a bit. Though even here, we are only leaving the more visible and direct world of politics and power and moving into the realm of the invisible and indirect forms power. As I have argued elsewhere, sports and entertainment have been an essential ingredient of American power for the past century and the machinations of the ESPN broadcasting behemoth can be discussed in a similar way as organizational realignments in the Pentagon or the World Bank. To see this, however, let’s begin by looking at sports and entertainment’s place in the integrated spectacle.

In the previous post on the integrated spectacle, reference was made to American football and the fusion of the hype and hoopla of sport mixed with the showcases of military strength and selfless valor. The sophistication and coordination of such spectacle speaks to the high level of centralized planning and organization required to be effective, and the enormous expense that must be paid to ensure the show reaches the widest possible audience. Indeed, ESPN is part of the media empire of the Walt Disney Company, a huge debt-laded juggernaut that, like all corporate and state monoliths in a post-industrial world, are looking for any and all opportunities to tap into the consciousness of as many human minds as possible. Part of this is due to commercial and financial calculations, but another part of it is this more evangelical motivation to bring as many souls under the power of its media influence as possible. Because of the universal appeal of sport—indeed, one might relate the devotion of sports fanatics to that of religious zealots—ESPN and other sports media outlets have the opportunity to act as the mediators between the actual sports on the field and the viewing audience at home. ESPN, in its collusion with the sports leagues, serves as a media cathedral through which the fans of the various sports can worship and pay their devotion while simultaneously be solicited by advertisers and propagandized by the state through both overt and covert messages.

This arrangement, however, is very top down and hierarchical. It relies on an unwieldy trust of cable channels (ESPN being one of many), cable and satellite TV providers, provincial sports leagues (including an NCAA that does not pay wages to its talent for their labor), big name advertisers, and a state regulatory apparatus that makes the public airwaves available at little or no cost. There has historically been little authentic multi-directional interaction between stations like ESPN and its audience outside of the usual marketing and publicity campaigns designed not so much to allow the “fans” to give input on the programming they consume, but to allow ESPN to more effectively tailor their programming to the wants, tastes, desires and fantasies of their traditional viewers and those non-traditional demographic groups they wish to solicit and bring within the fold. As others have explained,[1] the monopolistic structure allowed the sports leagues to charge ever higher fees to ESPN who then charged the cable and satellite ever increasing fees to broadcast the sports for which they paid the rights who then charged the paying customers ever higher rates. The lack of competition and growing need for the distraction of sport in tough economic times placed upward pressure on these fees.

Then the media capabilities shifted with the arrival of social networking sites, ubiquitous mobile devices and the general onset of the spectacle of disintegration. Before long, the “gods” of the sporting world—athletes and celebrities—were able to bypass the media priesthood channels like ESPN had spent billions to erect and speak directly to their fans. Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, and all the other signature capabilities of the social media age meant the lumbering media giants were having the ground taken out from under them. Similar to Martin Luther decrying the paying of indulgences and arguing for a more direct relationship with God during the Protestant Reformation, fans decried the high fees they paid to access their sports and insisted with so many athletes now available on social media, the need for such “mediation” from sports reporters and personalities was unnecessary. The leagues and teams also were drawn to this new arrangement. They could produce their own media programming and social media content without having to worry about ESPN and other sports media outlets editing their comments or asking question they would prefer not to answer. Social media also enabled fans to engage in more widespread “discussions” and “debates” about their favorite teams and athletes. Most of this content was (and is) tedious, silly, absurd and often vulgar. Fans would spend hours arguing “logically” why one side should win a particular contest over another despite the fact that much sport involves chance and random events that defy the best laid plans or skills of the most effective players and teams.

All of this is evidence of the integrated spectacle at work. This monolithic and authoritarian unidirectional media apparatus experienced several organs of its body spin out of control and become autonomous. When fans and athletes are able to talk to each other without mediation from sports reporters at ESPN or Fox, they have seized parts of a complex of power they were never supposed to be able to access or control. Like a ship where a portion of the crew has taken over a part of the vessel and is issuing its own orders, the audience of ESPN found the ability to turn the media weapons used against them on its usual operators, who are struggling to figure out how to re-take full control of the ship. One tactic they have tried is to reflect the debate and diatribe found on social media back at the audience in the form of these now omnipresent programs where highly paid celebrity pundits engage in duels of “hot takes.” There seems to be some unwritten rules to these pseudo-contests centered around giving an opinion that somehow manages to be both outlandish and plausible at the same time and concise enough to fit in a Twitter post. Consistently crafting a perspective that is sufficiently unique and abridged requires a special talent that eludes most sports reporters and ex-athletes, resulting in an odd cadre of sports media aristocrats like Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and others who have mastered this very twenty-first century art form.

Meanwhile, however, the old fashioned sports reporters and editors who were only asked to gather facts and write them out in complete and compelling sentences is becoming less and less necessary. One does not need an interview with Lebron James about how it felt winning last year’s NBA Championship when he can write a Facebook post or craft a tweetstorm that captures this. He and his fellow athletes can talk directly to the fans and bypass the reporters who could never be fully trusted to convey the precise message the athlete or celebrity (or their publicist) wishes to communicate. Reporters and other support staff become dead weight on a sinking ship, and as ESPN showed during the last week of April, this dead weight—regardless of how talented it is or how well it does its job—must be jettisoned.

Moreover, sports leagues are figuring out how to bypass media companies altogether in terms of broadcasting their contests to their mass audiences. We already see each of the major sports leagues operating their own cable/satellite channels—if ESPN and its ilk begin to see serious declines in revenue and audience, these sports leagues may decide to bypass the broadcasters altogether and use their popular products to boost their own smaller media fiefdoms. Within these fiefs you are also likely to see a more totalitarian posture by the leagues, which will begin to severely restrict what their stars and celebrities can say via any social media platform. This, as has been argued in previous posts, is the return of the concentrated spectacle and the development of an authoritarian impulse within the context of the sport media environment. Indeed, depending how restrictive these media fiefdoms become, they may be models that can be exported to the corporate or administrative world to prevent employees from speaking ill of the organizations they work for or to prevent whistleblowers. They may even be tried out in civil society itself–an unlikely scenario t be sure, but perhaps an appropriate one. What brought authoritarian rule to the United States wasn’t the CIA or the FBI, but the NFL and MLB.


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