The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Of Sports Television

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With all due respect to one of the most respected play-by-play announcers in the business, Mike Tirico kinda ticked me off this weekend.

Something he does quite often – whether on ESPN’s Monday Night Football or on NBA telecasts – is bring up a handful of storylines that have been discussed endlessly in national and local media. In the NBA playoffs, where these angles are retold over a minimum of four games, it can feel a little bit like Groundhog Day.

Two that Tirico brought up repeatedly during the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers may be familiar to you by now. For starters, the Pacers are a small-market team without superstars or high-wattage egos that play gritty basketball in America’s heartland while the Knicks are the complete opposite coming from the largest city in the States. The other, which connects to the first, was how more media personalities were focused on the Knicks’ mistakes rather than the Pacers’ successes.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

Now, bring it to the ongoing Western Conference Finals where the San Antonio Spurs – the most successful pro sports outfit since 1999 – have the 2-0 series lead over the Memphis Grizzlies. As discussed last year on the site, the Spurs have been labeled as boring for so long that even when they are not, the stigma doesn’t stray far from the reality. Despite having some of their most viewed playoff games in five years, they were buoyed by a maddening Los Angeles Lakers team and the allure of Steph Curry and his Golden State Warriors. In this series, they go against a Grizzlies team that was also helped by L.A. (Clippers) and the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder. As much love as Memphis has gotten for playing a bit of bully-ball, the fact that they’ve only played well for about a quarter in two games thus far hasn’t translated well on TV just yet.

And the small-market angle repeated itself again in Game 1 on ABC and Game 2 for ESPN.

The thing about this discussion of stars and superstars, media markets, television ratings, and depth of coverage is that there’s not much time or interest in context. In many ways, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a negative or positive expectation about teams or players may cause viewers to behave in a manner that actually makes the expectation come true.

Basically, if Tirico or Mike Breen or anyone on television tells you that people don’t pay attention to these small-market teams because of where they’re located, and they don’t appear on national television very much (hi, Milwaukee Bucks!), then naturally, people won’t pay attention. Yes, we fans play a role in whether teams will be seen for a wider audience or not, but it’s a bit hard to understand why this is mentioned during game broadcasts so openly.

The NBA is far from the only league that’s immune from the discussion of market sizes — the mighty NFL has the so-called gaping hole with no team in Los Angeles yet has teams in Jacksonville and Buffalo. However, it seems as if the small-market designation can be the kiss of death for some teams if they don’t have the singular superstar ready-made for promotional uses.

At the same time, sports people get things twisted often. Case in point: How can one call the Miami Marlins a small-market team and the NBA Champion Heat a big-market team when they both play in the same city (16th–largest market in the U.S. with over 1.6 million TV homes)?

With all the bandwidth and money thrown out there to show these games, there's plenty of room to expound more on who these players and coaches are. Heck, ESPN alone is available to over 100 million homes and takes over $5 of your cable bill.* Add the numerous networks from FOX, NBC, CBS along with Turner Sports and the leagues themselves, and there are plenty of opportunities for us to get to know these teams.

If it’s believed that a team does not get enough respect or attention because of where it plays, isn’t that as much the responsibility of the network as it is the leagues?

What, they don’t have TVs in Indianapolis?

There’s no doubt that the sheer largesse of a select few cities and fan bases can carry quite a bit of the weight of viewership, merchandise and obnoxious media coverage. And yet, it has never been that simple. If that was the case, then franchises like the Heat and Thunder or even the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Tigers and Green Bay Packers shouldn’t move the meter as much for their leagues as they are right now.

*The layoffs at the network are not lost on anyone here, and if you have ever been unemployed for reasons beyond your control, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Yet, reports have shown how ESPN has been put into a bind thanks to a combination of very pricey rights deals and increased competition among broadcasters.

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