The television screen cuts to a shot of an empty podium. Spectators excitedly await the speaker’s presence. In the corner of the television screen, the anchor in the studio leads hushed and anxious discussion among a panel of experts.
Is this a description of CNN in the moments before the State of the Union? NBC before the president makes an announcement on war or peace?
No. The television channel was ESPN; the auditorium was a high school gymnasium in Ohio; and the NFL Live studio crew was discussing whether Cardale Jones, the Ohio State quarterback who had just led the Buckeyes to the national title as a third-string quarterback, would stay another year at the university or go pro.
“I’m going to return next year for school,” he said sheepishly, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. “I don’t know why you guys made it such a big deal.”
The line drew laughter from the crowd of reporters, but I’m sure just about any sports fan would agree with Jones. Surely Jones’s announcement would have made sports pages around the country — after all, he did just lead his team to a Cinderella victory in the first-ever College Football Playoff. But the conceit that the decision of a student returning to school warrants scheduling and giving a press conference is absurd.
This is not to pick on Jones — especially because the redshirt sophomore acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. But the press conference does exemplify disheartening trends that those who watch sports TV or read sports websites know well: the overhyping of minor stories; the stoking of any insignificant controversy; and, at its worst, the publicizing of stories that have little to do with sports at all. In short, these channels and websites will do just about anything for a shiny headline.
At any given time, ESPN.com lists 11 top stories. As I look at those headlines now, at 8:45 pm the night this column was written, one of those headlines teases a story about Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman accusing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady of “start[ing] trash talk in 2012,” while another proclaims, “Lebron [James] to develop prime-time game show.” These are stories that should be, at best, destined for the back pages of local papers. Yet there they are, on the front page of the most-read sports website in the world.
Some may say that sports media provides these types of stories because the fans want them. Yet a comment by one fan on the James story shows a typical example of the attitudes towards this phenomenon. The fan mocks the story’s writer, quipping, “Brian Windhorst with another hard hitting Lebron James piece.”
Others may say that the 24-hour sports news cycle places particular pressures on media outlets to drum up stories, a pressure that results in tangential pieces. Yet as the sports media cycle has expanded, so too has the potential for stories: opportunities to craft work based on statistical analysis, video review or even data mining now exist where they may not have several years ago.
Whatever the reason for overhyping certain stories or publishing headlines that tangentially relate to sports, the practice must stop for the simple reason that doing so detracts from the reason why fans watch sports in the first place: that is, the competition itself. For every story about old trash talk or an athlete’s new game show, a piece of relevant news or analysis gets dropped. As Cardale Jones might put it, sports fans miss out on solid reporting for stories that are just not a big deal.