University of Louisiana Lafayette
Every day, I partake of the ESPN brand: when I eat breakfast, when I drive to work, when I drive around town, when I get home, and before I go to bed. It encircles me 365 days a year, like a family member or friend who travels this path of life alongside me. Even though the brand encompasses large portions of my existence, it does not stand above both positive and negative scrutiny. That is where Travis Vogan’s ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire comes in. Vogan’s study does much more than provide a history of the network and brand that has overtaken the sports media landscape in this country and abroad. While he does present the historical genesis of the Worldwide Leader in Sports from its command center in Bristol, CT, Vogan explores the way that ESPN has positioned itself within the sports and cultural zeitgeist as an entity that straddles the fence between high and low brow representations of sports and culture.
Norby Williamson, ESPN’s senior executive vice president, sums up Vogan’s argument best when he told the author in 2013, “Brand management is front and center, being protective with the brand and aggressive with the brand” (171). Vogan skillfully takes the reader on a path that examines the way ESPN—which started essentially on a wing and a prayer in 1979—created, maintained, and expanded its “symbolic capital” for the past thirty-six years. To accomplish this task, Vogan starts with the company’s beginnings, but then he moves quickly to the various entities under the ESPN umbrella that have given the company its cultural cache. Vogan explores everything from ESPN’s SportsCentury programs to the rise of Grantland.com as a boutique website for sports fans.
Moving the sports page from the “toy department” to center stage, ESPN’s construction of itself as proprietor of “a recognizable marker of identity and community” that rises above the ephemeral box scores, brands the company as not only an authority but also as a sports fan who comes over and partakes of the spectacle with you (2). In tracing this ascension, Vogan couches his study in cultural studies, presenting ESPN’s location within the theoretical framework of Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Sarah Banet-Weiser, and others. Deftly, Vogan does not allow dense theoretical discussions to hinder the readability of his study. Instead, they serve as a framework that occasionally becomes visible in order to set up or reinforce a specific point. By doing this, Vogan makes his study accessible to everyone interested in ESPN’s “symbolic capital” and the way they work to maintain that capital in an ever-changing media landscape.
During the mid-1980s, ESPN gathered momentum that would catapult them into the stratosphere of media corporations. With deals that allowed the station to show highlights from other networks and its acquisition of expansive archives, the company positioned itself as not only the present reporter of the sports universe but also as the curator of sports history. Vogan discusses how ESPN, in the 1990s with the launch of ESPN Classic, situated itself as sports historian, legitimizing itself as an entity that sought to protect and explore historical influence of sports on our very existence. According to Vogan, “ESPN Classic puts on display ESPN’s sports archive—a far less mysterious, but still massively valuable, variation of Disney’s fabled ‘vault’—and showcases its command over this abundant collection” (63). The vast archives allow ESPN to dictate the narrative that arises from its brand, and this practice would eventually lead to the SportsCentury project at the end of the twentieth century.It can be assumed, based on the history Vogan presents, that the company’s trajectory has not yet reached its arc.
As this move worked towards legitimizing ESPN, Vogan notes that the projects produced by the company adhered to a controlled narrative, and sometimes that narrative, as would be seen with League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (a joint project with PBS’s Frontline), hindered its ability to be objective, especially when the narrative counters some of the company’s business connections, specifically the NFL in this case. As Vogan says, “ESPN’s [eventual] detachment from League of Denial has far more troubling implications that suggest its business partnerships limit its journalistic capacities” (173). Bill Simmons’s Page 2, and more specifically Grantland website, created a space where the claims of ESPN lacking journalistic integrity due to business ties could at least be somewhat alleviated.
Grantland became a site where writers and commentators showed “apparent willingness to wrestle with politically loaded nuances that conventional sports media outlets often elide,” as was the case with Wesley Morris’s “The Tao of Gronk” (151). Simmons’s website existed, at least on the surface, as an independent entity from the ESPN umbrella; however, Vogan questions if this could ever possibly be the case. Most significantly, Vogan notes Grantland’s prestige as a site that brought, like Page 2, literary recognition to the ESPN brand through its alignment with literary figures such as William S. Burroughs. ESPN constructed other “cultural” ties as well, especially when they partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival and the PEN American Center.
Overall, Vogan’s examination of the Worldwide Leader in Sports becomes much more than a history lesson. Vogan crafts a text that critiques ESPN and highlights “the motives that guide its construction and maintenance,” illuminating how one company can become so entwined with our lives that no matter its artistic achievements or monumental failures (LeBron James’s The Decision) we cannot escape it and we continually look to it, for better or for worse, for both sophisticated and superfluous material (177). In its first thirty-six years, ESPN has become a global powerhouse, and even though Vogan does not predict where the company will go, it can be assumed, based on the history Vogan presents, that the company’s trajectory has not yet reached its arc because it continually tries to invent and reinvent, always, as companies do, looking at the bottom line.
Copyright © Matthew Teutsch 2016
Originally published in Aethlon
 Matthew Teutsch attended the University of Louisiana Monroe and graduated with a B.S. in secondary education in 2001 before returning to obtain an M.A. in English in 2004. Upon completion of his degree, he taught at ULM through 2008. As a PhD candidate he worked at the Ernest J Gaines Center at UL Lafayette. His dissertation from 2014 is entitled “‘We wish to plead our own cause,’: rhetorical links between Native Americans and African Americans during the 1820s and 1830s”. Matthew Teutsch blogs at Interminable Rambling