The four letter, 24/7 sports network anchored on the east coast is oft-criticized—at times for good reason. The sports media behemoth is accused of an east coast bias and leverages its network channels and digital media for never-ending self-promotion. Critics suggest ESPN’s media coverage is overly selective; certain stories are buried, privately deemed bad for business. Its flagship show, SportsCenter, is visually behind the times, feeling more like CNN than the carefree sports show it purports to be. Tougher to insult is the work being done at ESPN The Magazine, a bi-weekly periodical that strikes the right balance between news source and long form journalism.
My latest copy of ESPN The Magazine is creased, dog-eared and ripped. It has been flipped through several times over despite the issue’s college football focus, a league that rarely attracts my attention. The stories are sports-universal. An NFL junky can be drawn in by a breakdown of the college football season while a baseball fan can appreciate a piece on the downfall of a once promising Major League Soccer star. The magazine sells because it became what the rest of them did not.
ESPN The Magazine succeeds because, upon inception in the late 90s, its editors determined what still works in the shrinking sports periodical business and pitched the rest. Its leaders accepted that fans no longer wait for a magazine delivery to read about the latest trade rumors and free agent signings. Sports Illustrated, its major print competitor, is the purest example of sports coverage overkill. The wildly popular weekly magazine covers sports in a fashion that’s easily handled by daily television and sports talk coverage; its pages are filled with drab season previews, stories of winning franchises and an overwhelming need to cover niche sports. Like a crumbling technology company that formed in the pre-internet era, SI’s printed form has not adapted well. While ESPN The Magazine’s print edition is squarish to allow for larger pictures and more content, Sports Illustrated remains in its original aspect ratio, creating narrow columns and smallish graphics. SI does have top-tier writers and editors but employees at ESPN better understand what readers want and provide us exactly that. Statistics dominate sports discussions, from sports talk to SportsCenter. The Mag’s writers use stats without making each piece all about the numbers. Its liberal use of the infographic imparts knowledge in a unique way while keeping the attention of easily distracted readers. But the paramount reason why ESPN The Magazine resonates with sports fans is a willingness to tell stories about obscure sports figures and underdog teams as well as bring us closer to the athletes we know and can’t help but follow.
On television and in the movies, it’s all about the characters. From Lost and Friends to Star Wars and Forrest Gump, the plot becomes meaningless without interesting characters we can root for and despise. There is little difference in sports. ESPN’s written word tells tales about a starting NFL lineman—John Moffitt—that walked away from his team mid-season. It explains how Pete Carroll’s positivity brought sunshine—and a winner culture—to rainy Seattle. Readers travel to Italy, discovering the crude racism still present at its soccer games. And to Brazil, uncovering the social unrest boiling up around the approaching World Cup tournament. Its writers connect with household names—King James, Lance Armstrong—new faces—Stephen Curry, Nick Foles—and surprise late bloomers—R.A. Dickey about life on, and off, the playing field. These stories divert us from box scores and personnel decisions, leading us to the core of sports fanaticism. We love to root for teams, and the coaches and athletes that give up so much—families, bodies, minds—to score a victory. ESPN The Magazine represents sports journalism well. It’s worth a printed subscription and, most certainly, worth a few minutes away the websites and smartphone apps that absorb our mindshare. Bawdy advertising be damned—its crinkling pages sound as good as they ever did.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com