ESPN Is Self-Aware Terrible Now, And That's Progress

The former "Worldwide Leader" is embracing its trashy side.
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It’s been a rough go of things for ESPN lately. The Worldwide Leader in Sports has come under attack from the White House for “SC6” host Jemele Hill’s tweets about Donald Trump, while also getting blowback from the public over Hill’s suspension for a tweet that didn’t even present an opinion, only the simple fact that targeting advertisers is an effective way to protest corporate behavior.

ESPN

Meanwhile, ESPN partnered with the inimitable Barstool Sports for a new show that drew 88,000 viewers for its premiere this week while also generating widespread negative publicity, to the point where FortuneandPeople magazines got in on it after ESPN’s own Sam Ponder looked back aghast at the sexist venom spewed her way from Barstool.

There also, of course, is the ongoing issue for ESPN of being a cable television network in 2017, as cord-cutting and other factors are siphoning away viewers and damaging the bottom line. Time to bring in a savvy businessman to turn things around!

LaVar Ball is the founder and CEO of Big Baller Brand, a clothing company whose emoji set trailed only that of Ariana Grande in the App Store rankings after its debut this week. Naturally, then, he was brought on the late-night edition of SportsCenter on Thursday for a live spot with Stephen A. Smith and Neil Everett to lead into the highlights of the Lakers’ season opener against the Clippers.

Ball, of course, isn’t just a fashion and tech entrepreneur, but the father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, as well as UCLA swingman LiAngelo Ball, and high school phenom LaMelo Ball. So, after Lonzo made his NBA debut with a 1-for-6 shooting night, LaVar, wearing a $50 Big Baller Brand t-shirt, went on ESPN and trumpeted Big Baller Brand’s business success and his son’s nine rebounds. The only way it could have been more surreal would be if Everett had been replaced by a melting clock. If you don’t want to watch it, you should reconsider that, because it went from “oh, good lord, where’s the remote?” to “oh, good lord, this is impossible to look away from” in mere moments, but just know that Stephen A. Smith was the sensible and reasonable person in this exchange.

There is something here for ESPN to mine. Put aside questions about whether it’s good for a 19-year-old basketball player’s megalomaniac father to grab the spotlight, because between the Hill suspension and the Barstool association, ESPN obviously does not care about morality in any meaningful way. This is about how the network can make bank.

The NBA is a soap opera with dozens of storylines these days, but one that generally plays out on social media, whether it’s Joel Embiid feuding with Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony throwing shade at his old team, or Kevin Durant maybe having burner accounts to defend Kevin Durant from trolls. But the only way ESPN can capitalize on that is by making hay of social posts on its own website, or showing them on TV – where they’re secondhand.

But do you know what is a sports soap opera with dozens of storylines that does its biggest business on television? Professional wrestling. And, if nothing else, LaVar Ball is cut straight from the mold of a WWE manager, talking up his stable and his interests regardless of what the facts are, with effusive self-praise. Meanwhile, Smith is there to interject facts and make incredulous faces, while having his own, well-developed character – the Mean Gene Okerlund of his generation.

Having Ball on studio sit-down shows is arduous, because it comes off as a rehearsed act, but featuring him in the hullaballoo around games is golden – and a way to get some eyeballs outside of the live broadcast window. It’s a different formula than what TNT uses with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal to make “Inside the NBA” the perfect studio show, but if ESPN can develop a few more characters, they’ll really be on to something, and maybe won’t feel so desperate that they partner with misogynists just to get an audience 10% smaller than the population of Davenport, Iowa.

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