Sports Media’s Personality Solution Is Also Its Problem

The years have not been kind to sports media. Facing increased competition from online platforms and social media, industry giants like ESPN and Fox Sports have only seen their ratings and viewership continue to plummet despite their status as some of the longest-standing sports media outlets

Audience consumption habits have shifted; and as a result, sports media companies have begun to shift their focus when hiring, and firing, talent.

The old bread and butter of the sports media – straight reporting on games, scores, and stats – has been slowly whittled away in the modern broadcast lineup. Instead, organizations are putting a higher premium on personalities commentary.

Last summer, Fox Sports laid off dozens of writers while expanding its video production team.  ESPN has also laid off many of its reporters and writers over the past few years, with 40 to 60 more employees of the “worldwide leader in sports” expected to be laid off before the end of the year, according to Sporting News.

Instead, the companies have doubled down on hiring attractive personalities instead. The Fox Sports 1 lineup is now mostly talking heads. ESPN too has shifted to a more personally-focused presentation, most notably with their six o’clock broadcast of Sports Center, which features Michael Smith and Jemele Hill.

Hill, who has been under fire from her employer for her comments about President Donald Trump, represents the problem that faces sports media. Relying on personalities ostensibly means accepting that talent will have opinions, a difficult position for sports media in a polarized political climate.

The last thing that the executives at ESPN and Fox Sports want is for their talent to be creating their own headlines. However, the reason these figures are hired is because of the fan bases these personalities have.

USC Annenberg Journalism Professor Miki Turner, who has previously worked at NFL Network and ESPN, and specializes in sports media, said that the recent national shift to hiring more personalities is a practice very common at the local level.

Authenticity builds audiences. Sports has always been about the personalities,” said Turner in an interview with Mediafile.

Turner speculated that sports journalists with high profiles will be the ones who succeed in the future.

“You’ll have to establish yourself and your work via Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, FB and other platforms. Writers and columnists will also have to do as much video work, if not more, than actual writing.”

Another related trend in the industry is the hiring of former athletes. Fox Sports has received praise for its World Series Pregame show featuring former MLB players David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Frank Thomas.

John Smoltz, a former MLB pitcher, and Tony Romo, a former star NFL quarterback, have also received praise for providing professional insights in the broadcast booth.

An extension of this phenomena is The Players’ Tribune, an online platform for athletes to publish their own stories started by former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter.

“I think the day of the silent athlete is gone and that’s a good thing,” Turner said.

Yet the industry has still not figured it out. NFL ratings continue to reach record lows, as these organizations experiment with different consumption and revenue models.

While it is unclear if emphasizing the personalities of players and journalists is helping or hurting the industry as a whole, sports media executives are still working on finding a balance between reporting the news and their employees becoming the news.

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