ESPN: Hero Factory

On Sunday, Kobe Bryant scored 40 points for the ninth straight game, surpassing Michael Jordan’s mark of eight games and looking forward to toppling Wilt Chamberlain’s record. Kobe Bryant is an athlete. He is a professional athlete. And these are the kind of stories that ESPN should be covering. ESPN should cover Ken Griffey, Jr.’s tense relationship with the Cincinnati management. ESPN should cover the NFL draft and the Milwaukee/Seattle basketball trade. ESPN should even cover March Madness and NCAA basketball. ESPN should cover NCAA football. ESPN should probably cover international soccer, if the demand is there. The network should cover car-racing if consumers demand coverage.

These are sports (with the exception of NASCAR) that have a market large enough to justify national coverage. ESPN alone did not create these markets, they did not even invent the sports. However, they have been created and invented, and ESPN is just the latest corporation capitalizing on the public’s demand for coverage. For the most part, ESPN is no different from a newspaper that covers sporting news.

ESPN, though, has entered an entirely new realm when it comes to LeBron James. LeBron James is a sport unto himself these days. Alone, the young man has newsworthy statistics, games, disagreements with management and even problems with the law. He owns a Hummer and has a mother who would catfight Allen Iverson’s mom for a TV spot. The man has more drama in his life than I could imagine in one Friends episode. It’s as if he was a cash cow created precisely by ESPN so that the network could capitalize off his fame! But wait – he was created by ESPN.

After Lebron temporarily lost his eligibility for taking two retro jerseys from a store owner, later discovered to be the manager, later discovered to be a staff supervisor, ESPN started a campaign on behalf of “Poor King James” whose innocence had been destroyed by the ever evil and malicious sneaker companies. I object to such a campaign. The sneaker companies are not at the root of this problem.

LeBron James is an incredible basketball player. He may even be the best player ever to play the high school game, though I doubt it. But he would be nothing but a well-recruited youth if it weren’t for the media that discovered him just as the nation was a little bored. ESPN created a superstar out of a basketball player. And that’s an important distinction, because before ESPN found him, before the Sports Illustrated cover, nobody had ever heard of LeBron James. And the sneaker companies would never have been there.

The sneaker companies would not be willing to shell out million dollar contracts unless LeBron James was a superstar. LeBron James would not be a superstar unless fans flocked to an arena to see him play. Fans would not flock to an arena to see him play unless they knew who he was. They would not know who he was unless they had read about him or seen him on television. And he wouldn’t be in news-magazines or on television unless some network scout had seen him play. In all honesty, the sneaker companies depend on ESPN to create the market.

So I’m tired of reading on the ESPN website that the sneaker companies or the NBA scouts or the agents which lavish poor LeBron with gifts are at fault for (read through tears) destroying the innocence of poor King James. No, ESPN knows exactly what it did. ESPN found their cash cow, ESPN exploited it and now ESPN has a story for the next ten years.

But let’s pause before blaming this entire catastrophe on ESPN. ESPN and SI are catering to a market. A demand. They knew LeBron would sell, so they created him. He is so good for them. Since Michael Jordan retired, and since his reemergence as a superhero has yet to materialize, and since Kobe Bryant lacks the star-power to draw a national audience, they needed a player to fill the void. It was a void created by a public that demands a superstar in every aspect of life. For years now, ESPN has been a machine that produces a hero just when the nation demands one. ESPN even has an annual section in The Magazine predicting the “Next” superstars (read: heroes). And regardless of how well the rest of the athletes in the nation are performing, those “Next” athletes will receive the press. Before the season starts, ESPN picks the heroes and we wait and watch. That’s America. Give me a hero, dammit!

I’m as guilty as you. I’ll watch LeBron’s game on ESPN. I’ll probably watch Kobe’s next few games to see if he catches Wilt. I’ll watch the stories that ESPN creates for me, because in all honesty, I’m a pawn in this game. I want a hero, and ESPN provides them.

I love it.