Embrace debate helping or hurting ESPN

 BY ANTHONY ALFORD

Is it more important for a show to be defined by creditability and integrity, or by ratings and attention? That is the issue for ESPN2’s two-hour morning show, First Take, starring Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. Initially, this program was designed to be a lighter, general interest counterpart to ESPN’s Sportscenter. But the ratings never supported the format and First Take was in danger of being canceled. But then came Tim Tebow and the show went from respectable, but irreverent to a joke with high ratings.

The show’s tagline “embrace debate” has caused conflict among the ESPN networks. This show should be a flop considering the personalities of it stars. Stephen A. Smith is a loudmouth who wins arguments by talking louder than everyone else in the room. Skip Bayless is considered by many to be a joke. He takes the unpopular opinion just to get attention, not because his opinion is actually logical and correct. He uses his daily two-hour platform to openly cheer for Tebow, call LeBron James overrated and challenge athletes to “debate” him.

Last week, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman took the bait and debated Bayless. Sherman’s main adjective was ripping Bayless during their entire debate. And while Bayless-haters believe this was a win for Sherman, this was really a win for Bayless and First Take. In fact, as ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd explains, this was a “walk-off grand slam” for Bayless because Sherman gave Bayless an endless amount of free promotion and attention.

According to ESPN, First Take has increased its total viewership by 21 percent between 2011 and 2012. The big number is their target audience of males, ages 18-34, which is very attractive to advertisers. Between 2011 and 2012, First Take gained 32 percent in viewership in the male 18-34 demographic.

Given the show’s success, it has impacted viewership for SportsCenter. According to Nielsen data, Sportscenter (10-11 a.m.) led First Take in ratings by 636,000 viewers in September 2011. However, the difference between the two shows decreased dramatically as First Take offered more time to Tim Tebow when he was quarterback for the Denver Broncos. By March 2012, when Tim Tebow was traded to the New York Jets, Sportscenter only led by 182,000 viewers according to Nielson data. First Take is no longer a secondary option; it became Sportscenter’s competition.

Since that time, the morning Sportscenter has taken on a debate flair of its own. Most recently, ESPN analysts debated which win streaks between the NBA’s Miami Heat and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks is better.

First Take has certainly put a dark cloud over ESPN and its flagship program. This is ill-timed considering it will have competition later this year from Fox Sports 1, Fox’s new 24-hour sports network. The ratings are certainly increasing, however the ESPN and Sportscenter brands are losing creditability by the day. The answer is not eliminating First Take as many media writers have suggested. Instead, the morning Sportscenter must improve the quality of its show so it’s not competing with its ESPN2 counterpart. Limit the worthless debate segments and present an intelligent program that Sportscenter is capable of producing.

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About The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project

The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project is a hub for teaching, research, and service related to sport media. The Project benefits students and faculty at Bowling Green State University, and offers outreach and media consulting to area and regional groups that work with student-athletes. Through collaborative efforts of the Sport Management program and the School of Media and Communication, BGSU students have the opportunity to learn such skills as sports writing, reporting, broadcasting, announcing, public relations, media relations, communication management and production. Faculty and other scholars have access to resources about the commercial and sociological aspects of sport.

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