May 10th, 2010

Sports and the Brain, Part III: Feedback Loop

By Kyle Morich

On ESPN.com this morning, I read yet another article about LeBron James and his free agency coming this summer. His talents are unquestioned, but the aura surrounding him is otherworldly.  “King James” is far and away the most heralded athlete of his generation and is worth billions in current and future endorsements.  But his coverage is disproportionate to his talent and tangible success (his number of championship rings at the time of this writing stands at zero).  It begs the discussion of which came first: the coverage, or the celebrity?

The issue of LeBron (and the Yankees, the Colts, Roger Federer, Manchester United, or any other big market sports icon) dominating sports coverage is a feedback loop.  His talent created conversation and interest, which increased news coverage, and his successes justified that coverage, which increased conversation, and interest, and coverage, and so on.

This all leads to a fascinating question about the undisputed leader in sports-related news and entertainment, ESPN. If the intensity of the feedback I receive from sports is related to my personal knowledge and association with the sport that I am watching, then does the sporting news I use to keep abreast of that knowledge subconsciously direct my interest toward particular subjects?  If I get the majority of my sports news from ESPN, I will naturally gravitate toward whatever they are covering.  As my shortcut for sports knowledge, they influence the intensity of my feedback and, in turn, literally decide what I care about.

The idea that media can control narrative and direct consumer emotions toward particular topics is nothing new.  However, sports are different because of the emotion and personal enjoyment we can derive from it (I don’t get a deep sense of bonding by watching Bloomberg TV with my father).  And the ‘triviality’ of sport and the intrinsic need for an opinion to discuss it makes the ethics of its coverage much more amorphous and undefined.

ESPN spent years creating the SportsCenter habit – a highly reinforcing, easy-to-follow, routine activity for getting daily sports coverage and opinions.  By spending less than an hour in front of the TV in college, I was able to garner enough knowledge to engage in conversation with others and derive greater pleasure from sporting events.  But now ESPN is not just my news source.  They are a content source.  They now show Major League Baseball games, Monday Night Football, Playoff Basketball, Tennis, the Masters, and the entire World Cup in June.  It is now in their self-interest to direct my attention to those sports, to ensure their ratings and advertising revenue.  ESPN will begin heightening their soccer coverage starting this month.  If I know more about the World Cup, I am more likely to watch, be reinforced, and watch some more.  The difficult question is how would ESPN’s soccer coverage compare if they didn’t have the World Cup rights, and NBC instead owned the content?  As ESPN expands their business model and becomes an even larger force in the sporting landscape, it will be interesting to follow the consumer watchdog reactions to their coverage and if their presence in the sports zeitgeist becomes poisoned.

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