SI vs. ESPN

JASON CLINKSCALES: The target on ESPN’s proverbial back has grown with every property the network has acquired over the years. With Comcast hoping to leverage their potential purchase of NBC Universal to ramp up Versus and The Golf Channel and FOX Sports becoming the leading regional sports provider in the country, the new arrangement between Turner Sports and Sports Illustrated is more than another competitor throwing its name in the hat. It’s a symbol of how far Turner Sports has come.

What’s smart about this deal now is that this is leveraging the momentum the Turner networks – notable TNT and TBS – have built in recent years. For the ratings-obsessed fans out there, the NBA hasn’t had this good of a stretch on TV since the Jordan years. The PGA attracts the most affluent and influential (in terms of manager & executive jobs) fan base in the country. The baseball ratings haven’t been stellar, but TBS’ broadcasting experience with the Atlanta Braves gave it a built-in national audience. Along with NASCAR and soon-to-come, college basketball, Turner Sports has far more national prominence than Versus and arguably equal footing with FOX’s national broadcasts.

Time, Inc.’s news & sports president Mark Ford said to the Wall Street Journal, “We need scale. The competition is getting bigger, so we need to move now.” Yet, if anything, this provides relevance to a dying brand that is Sports Illustrated. This couldn’t have happened in the past as Time Warner (parent company of both brands) was struggling with synergy after merging with AOL. It couldn’t have happened as SI’s most prominent writers were being poached by ESPN and Yahoo! Sports.

Yet, it can happen as there’s a growing call to bring a strong journalist brand out against the sensationalist sports coverage from blogs, tabloids and media networks whose ethics and objectivity have been called into question.

HOWARD MEGDAL: The final point Jason makes is the key one, though I agree with the rest of his take as well: will quality journalism be enough to amass a huge audience to take on ESPN?

That’s a two-part question, really. Can TNT put together an entity that does this kind of journalism, and then, will quality be enough?

Consider me skeptical that the sports fan will choose quality over keeping the television tuned to the postgame for whatever sporting event he/she is watching.

This is not a knock on sports fans; this is a question of basic human instinct. All things being equal, if you just watched the game on ESPN, you will stay tuned to SportsCenter, right? The burden is fundamentally on the station that doesn’t have the game to lure you… and too often, that station is not ESPN.

Simply put: to defeat the incumbent, you need to offer something alluring and different. TNT may do that, but I’m not clear on exactly what “that” will need to be.

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