The Arbiter of Relevance

ESPN has faced criticism in the past for a lack of coverage of certain sports and possible reporting biases.  Maury Brown of Forbes detailed what he considered an “uncomfortable and unnerving relationship” the network has with the NFL in reference to how ESPN reports on and speaks to the National Football League.  ESPN fired nearly the entire National Hockey League division of reporters in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs in April of 2017, cementing the lack of priority in the sport.  

While the media empire does not have the monopoly on sports journalism, it does carry the lion’s share of responsibility of distributing sports related information to the public.  Forbes values ESPN at $14 billion as of 2016.  Since the inception in 1979, ESPN’s programs have expanded to 47 international stations and a variety of expanded channels such as ESPN Classic and ESPNews.

The framework created by a network as large as ESPN has become is a direct reflection of what is currently popular in the world of sports. To put it simply, ESPN casts the widest net in sports journalism.  By not covering woman’s athletic events, for example, they are effectively de-prioritizing and devaluing that event. With 24-hour coverage on Sportcenter, ESPN can singlehandedly create priorities or elevate narratives.

ESPN is missing an opportunity to educate viewers on the politics of sport and the ensuing ripple effects.  While the dominating conversation of the network is up-to-the-minute sports journalism, in the background of these stories is a larger piece of the socio-economic puzzle of sports entertainment.  Spectators seeking analysis or scores of pivotal games will find what they are looking for on the channel.  

The Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League are currently at a standstill over the future of the Saddledome, the team’s home arena in Alberta.  Built in 1983, the arena will be the second oldest stadium in the league after the New York Islanders move to Belmont Park Arena in 2021.  The facility’s ability to host events and generate the revenue of newer stadiums decreases each passing year.  The future of the stadium, and potentially the Flames presence in the city of Calgary, are in question.

The Commissioner of the National Hockey League Gary Bettman recognized the need for a new stadium in Calgary and supported Alberta’s government in the funding of it.  Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has publicly stated his opposition to putting tax payer money into a new stadium for the team. Nenshi offered a Plan B solution which would ask for partial funding from the team’s owners. President of the Flames Ken King turned down this proposal.

During the mayoral campaign of 2017 when Nesnshi was up for reelection, a series of negative tweets came from the Flames front office group. Sean Kelso, media and communications director called the mayor “arrogant” and used the hashtag #bracefordisaster.  Clearly seeking to elect a mayor that would push for government funding of a new area, the Flames continued the social media onslaught when vice president of marketing Gordon Norrie urged citizens of Calgary to vote for Nenshi rival Bill Smith.

Nenshi was reelected at the conversation between the league and the government have stalled after new funding proposals fell flat.

With both parties still far apart on a stadium deal, the Flames have not put relocation to another city off the table.  While it may be unlikely, a move out of Canada into a U.S. market is still a possibility.  Houston and Kansas City have shown interest in an NHL team during the Las Vegas and Seattle expansion process.

While this issue may not be as vital or socially pressing as racism or a steroid scandal, the Saddledome issue is an example of unethical practices in a front office organization.  A professional sports organization attempting to sway a mayoral race in an effort to win a new stadium would likely send shockwaves in an American market in a sport more heavily covered than hockey.

While ESPN reflects the biggest stories in the world of sports, the visibility generated by ESPN coverage could potentially change out this situation is resolved.  

Moreover, ESPN acknowledging this story as vital would elevate the situation and shed light to a notable issue in one of the world’s most profitable leagues.  Over the last 4 decades, ESPN became the arbiter of relevance in the sports entertainment market.  

Fans have latched on to sports dynasties and embraced slogans like “the Patriots Way” when referring to the operational structure of the New England football team. The popular mythos of sports cultures is reported on and detailed to individuals increasingly hungry for this information. ESPN is missing the opportunity to further educate this growing population.