Travis Vogan is the author of the new book ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire. He also has written Keepers of the Flame. He is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about ESPN?
A: I’m interested in the relationship between high and low culture, and how attitudes define one object’s status from another object's. Sports media is an interesting case of that. It’s pervasive, but it doesn’t have the respectability associated with other forms of expression.
ESPN, of sports media, is the most pervasive brand. I’m fascinated with how they would work to create an association with practices that would have more respectability attached to them.
I teach courses on sports media, and there wasn’t much on ESPN out there, except more journalistic pieces focused on trying to do an expose.
Q: You write, “In short, we live in an ESPN culture.” How would you define that culture, and what impact has ESPN had on the U.S.?
A: I think it tries really hard to equate itself with sports media. There’s a suggestion that sports media wouldn’t exist without ESPN. It's the lens through which a lot of us experience sports. There’s a mistaken notion that the version of sports ESPN presents is the version in which sports exists in the world. But it is a very controlled version of sports that reflects ESPN’s priorities.
One of ESPN’s goals, and the rationale behind its self-given nickname as the worldwide leader in sports, is to convince us it’s the way sports exists in the world.
Q: And how did it change American culture?
A: Even though the version of sports it presents is not necessarily how sports [operates], it has created an expectation for people—the style and tone folks on the programs tend to adopt: sarcasm, humor, snarkiness.
At a more basic level, people expect sports television is something we can access whenever. That wasn’t always the case…ESPN is identified with creating and propelling the transformation of sports media into something [ubiquitous].
When all is said and done, people will remember that about ESPN—its relationship to cable television and how sports is consumed.
Q: You describe the “convergence” of the various types of media in which ESPN has been involved. How has that affected the company and its viewers and readers?
A: On the one hand, you have media convergence providing opportunity for new touch points. You don’t just watch ESPN, but you read ESPN, you wear ESPN, you visit ESPN if you go to its restaurants.
There’s also…a benefit with its association with different media. When they hired David Halberstam, they were hiring a person with an image steeped in print culture; at the time, it had a more respected association with it than internet media did.
Q: You write of ESPN, “It will attach its brand to a Hunter S. Thompson column that insults the president, but not to a PBS documentary that critiques the NFL.” Why is that?
A: Because its practices are not just for creating prestige or sophistication for the sake of doing it—but in a way that advances its industrial goals.
With the documentary League of Denial, they were initially collaborating with PBS. It looks at the NFL’s role in attempting to suppress the health effects of concussion. ESPN decided to remove its brand.
Signs point to [ESPN] trying to [preserve] its relationship with the NFL. This is a high-profile project; it won a Pulitzer. They decided that even though they wanted to build prestige, [they] won’t go that far. They won’t ruin their relationship with their most [important] client.
Q: What do you see looking ahead for ESPN?
A: It’s interesting to see some of this transformation happen. In a way, they’re moving away from some of these issues—they discontinued Grantland. They’re still doing things like producing documentaries. I think they will continue to do a lot of these, and expand their reach in other areas.
My focus is on the effort to build credibility, but that’s just one strand in ESPN’s set of priorities. It’s an important one, but not necessarily the one that creates the most revenue for them. They make most of their money off live broadcasts, SportsCenter.
One thing about ESPN as a huge multi-platform sports outfit is that it’s trying to expand in multiple directions—[reorganizing] its website, buying a contract to show cricket, expanding in new directions. It’s trying to build credibility [relating to its] commercial and industrial practices.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book about ABC Sports, considering the practices that guided the network and sports television from 1960 to the ‘90s. It’s a way to connect the dots: the Wide World of Sports, the Olympics, Evel Knievel—network TV sports in its heyday…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb