LeBron James was an unwitting target who demanded those who scrutinized his every dunk to squarely put the bullseye on him. So purveyors of sports talk dove in. Positions or “Hot Takes” as they’ve become more readily known are the commerce of our business. No longer are the people who deliver the news the people who ascend to fame in sports broadcasting. Those positions only exist in the form of massive sports properties (PxP of major events). The money in sports broadcasting is in opinion making or more to the point, getting people to actually polarize over your opinion.
So watching the explosion of criticism for soon to be former ESPN pundit Skip Bayless from his past and current colleagues following the end of the NBA Finals should only confirm this truism: to be heard you must be willing to concoct opinion. And if you aren’t on the Hot Take Mount Rushmore, then your best bet to try to etch your name in sports talk stone is to attack those who are. Skip Bayless, like him or not, has become a Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly of sports debate. News networks turned this corner decades ago realizing that the best TV comes when debate is well crafted. Get two pundits who take positions from the right and left and see what happens. Neither will back down, ever.
Fox Sports One has decided that the old form of sports broadcasting that included news and highlight shows are simply not interesting enough anymore to warrant bothering to produce. They’re not wrong. The question for them is whether their debate is so much better then ESPN’s that anyone would care to turn the channel. Fox News won the ratings war by implementing a clear Republican positioning of the national news. CNN was painted as liberal and thus Fox was portrayed as the alternative. How does Bayless (who heads to Fox Sports 1) offer an alternative to what ESPN has and will produce to replace him? Unlike politics, sports rarely offer such polarizing positions. Discussing LeBron’s place among the greatest all time players is a matter of nitpicking. It pales in comparison to a debate over gun laws.
But Fox should be ecstatic about the reaction Bayless got following the Cavaliers victory in game seven of the NBA Finals. Bayless has largely been a major critic of James. Bayless ripped him for his inability to win a title in Cleveland before he departed for Miami then criticized him for the decision itself then criticized him for failing to win 2 of the 4 championships his Heat teams played in, criticized him for his return to Cleveland and ripped him through various issues the Cavaliers franchise dealt with through largely a tumultuous two years of his return. With the Cavaliers winning a title, largely due to James presence in the organization as de facto general manager, coach and of course star player, it was hard for anyone to find something to take issue with. He delivered on a promise to hand the city of Cleveland it’s first professional championship in more then 50 years. But Bayless did, and because Bayless knows exactly how to push buttons, it garnered a reaction.
Bayless said Oklahoma City, who blew a 3 games to 1 series lead against Golden State (the team Cleveland defeated in the Finals) would have beaten LeBron. A variety of current and ex ESPN employees used that simple tweet to attack Bayless. And when a litany of famous sportscasters all take on the same person, the sports twitter bubble turned Bayless into a trending name just below that of LeBron. Inside the walls of ESPN, it’s taboo to go after your colleagues. There has been numerous examples of suspensions for ESPN on ESPN crime. But with Bayless walking out the door, it’s likely no one who went after him on social media will receive that type of repercussions. But Jamie Horowitz who runs Fox and reportedly gave Bayless a 24 million dollar contract (with an unheard of 4 million dollars signing bonus) can use what happened here as the best catapult for Bayless to his new home. He can show the Fox executives this guy is worth the money because the King troll just got trolled. There is an old saying in entertainment, all press is good press. This is the best press Fox Sports One could have asked for. A litany of famous sportscasters believe Bayless’s opinions matter so much, they had to react to them.
Those who don’t appreciate their sports TV with all the yelling and contrived opinion making just found out it is here to stay. Fox landed the guy who got everyone else who has a platform themselves to hit send. Say what you will about Limbaugh or O’Reilly, or Howard Stern, or Bayless. They know what they are doing. And because the world reacts to them as loudly as when James makes a game altering block to secure a title for Cleveland, it’s here to stay.
Let me clarify one thing: I’m not suggesting I’m that guy who’s taking the high road. Not when I start blabbing on air in the very near future again. Don’t blame me. Blame the ratings people like Bayless get. Apparently, it’s what you want.
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Email me: Bram@Reelmediagroup.tv