Whatever you think about the pending NBC-Comcast merger, there's a story brewing within the confines of the deal that has the potential to change the world as we know it. Well, the world of sports at least. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, Comcast is looking to have NBC Universal take control of its current sports network Versus and create what could be the first real competition for ESPN.
Okay, so maybe this doesn't seem like news worthy enough to stop the presses -- at least not immediately. But here's why you should care.
- ESPN is bad for sports. There, I said it -- though I'd wager I'm far from the first. What started as the sporting world's little network that could has grown into a behemoth that is six cable channels, two online channels, a plethora of radio shows and one magazine deep. You'd think this virtual monopoly would lend itself to providing the ultimate sports coverage, but unless you're a fan of the Big Three (football, baseball, basketball), you'll be lucky to find legitimate coverage of anything else besides an MLS game here or there or a rogue hockey clip thrown into some SportsCenter top ten list. It took the network until this year to secure a deal with Barclay's Premiership and Fox Sports International to broadcast the English Premier League, a.k.a. one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, and only on ESPN 2, younger sibling of ESPN proper. And last Spring was the first time any ESPN entity decided to broadcast any Mixed Martial Arts league when the Spanish version of the network, ESPN Deportes, showed weekly fights from the brand new Bellator Fighting Championships. Considering MMA's appeal as the third most popular sport among Spanish speaking Hispanics, it was all too kind of the Disney-owned network to take off their gloves and raw-fist fight for their viewers. Which brings me to...
- ...ESPN is bad for consumers -- unless you live on the East coast, that is. The network's penchant for catering to the vertical horizon stretching from Boston to Miami is not only tiresome, it inhibits West coast and Midwest viewers who'd like to see news about something other than the Yankees/Red Sox series (we get it, they're rivals) or retiring, un-retiring, terrible, no wait, amazing Brett Favre. Just because the former King of Cheese/current drama Queen plays in the NFC north doesn't mean he should satisfy the midwest-football-story quota. Then again, I'd rather have limited Big Ten news than have to suffer another Big Brother scare by the SEC limiting my social media usage during games -- a ban that was set down and retracted earlier this year under speculation that ESPN, who signed a huge deal for the right to broadcast SEC football games, pressured the league into restricting fans from social media usage in fear of losing viewers to twitter.
- ESPN is bad for news. I'll admit that what ESPN does, it does exceptionally well; that "what" being in-depth analysis of the MLB, NFL and NBA. I'll also give them their great coverage of major college conferences in basketball and football (note, "major"). And their round-the-clock SportsCenter sports "news" show manages to cover the top highlight-reel-worthy entertaining plays of the day with sufficient, if not over-the-top, snark. But when it comes to real stories behind how the sporting world goes round -- like the reason why there's no public transportation to Dallas's new monstrosity or how Bob Kraft used the city of Hartford to get a new stadium for the Patriots -- they got no game. Is political coverage of the sporting world ESPN's mission? Likely not, but as the only sports media outlet with access to the biggest audience in the U.S., it should be an obligation.
The problem is that ESPN has no obligation to anyone. It has no real competition, so why should it be obliged to provide coverage of alternative and/or regional sports, let alone sporting news that could impact the way in which people live their lives? It is consumerism at its best, playing to the big markets and providing sports as entertainment only. Where would an audience turn for such offerings? So far, nowhere.
NBC's takeover of Versus could provide a viable and equivalent competitor to the ESPN empire. It would make ESPN's coverage better: less East-coast skewed, less conference skewed, more coverage of different sports and, more importantly, truer news angles to off-the-field stories. It would hold sports coverage to a truer, higher standard.
Funny how higher standards can have a sobering effect on people.
Follow Katharine Rust on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KatharineRust