What would ESPN do without the Patriots?
Seriously, what would they talk about? I mean you can only cover LeBron James and make thinly veiled political statements that take the fun out of sports for so long before you run out of things to say, right? Luckily for the Worldwide Leader, the New England Patriots are still around to save the day.
I could link to any number of Tweets, articles, TV show highlights, and radio clips that ESPN and its affiliates have been putting out over the past few days/weeks about the state of the team, the status of Rob Gronkowski, how Belichick has lost the locker room, and whether or not Tom Brady will be returning next year, but I won’t. We all know the deal by now. None of this is anything new, and yet somehow, every year, we find ourselves on the same carousel, having to listen to the same hot takes, spouted by the same people. I can’t help but question if this exact offseason was happening in the wake of a Super Bowl win as opposed to a loss would still be carrying the same tone, but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that, much like Tommy B, we are all seasoned veterans at dealing with offseason ESPN blathering.
And to be honest, I get it - and it’s hard for me to be too angry. The stark reality is that in 2018, competition for our attention has never been higher. There are just so many outlets for entertainment out there - hundreds of television channels, millions of websites, YouTube videos that you can watch for decades without ever getting a repeat, and video games so real I can’t tell whether or not I’m watching an ad or a movie trailer sometimes. ESPN used to be the only place where we could watch highlights and get news, but not anymore. So when you’re up against that kind of competition, staying relevant is an absolutely herculean task, and you need to do whatever you need to do to stay afloat. It’s no secret that ESPN has been floundering for a while. Their ratings have been plummeting for several years. They laid off a large portion of their staff. They dumped an insane amount of money and marketing into what was supposed to be their saving grace, Get Up!, and absolutely nobody is watching it. Most people I know only tune in to ESPN for a live sporting event, even choosing to get their highlights elsewhere. They just can’t keep up with the rapidly changing media landscape, though a combination of some poor choices and circumstances out of their control. And when your back is against the wall and you’re desperate to stay afloat, the smart thing to do is stick with what you know works. When new experiments fall flat on their face (how much longer will Get Up! be on the air? A month? Two?) and nobody cares what you have to say anymore, it’s time to dip back into the well.
Enter the Patriots.
The vast majority of the country still hates this team. They still hate Bill Belichick, and still hate Tom Brady. So if there’s a chance of taking something as insane as “Tom Brady has not yet verbally announced to the country that he’ll be returning to play next season, even though he’s still under contract and has been working out with Julian Edelman and should be returning to team activity soon” and spinning it into “Brady might not play next year,” then why not go with that? That’s the kind of headline that people are going to want to click on. It’s what reminds people that ESPN still exists. If Gronk is doing some reassessing of his career this offseason, why not skew it so it sounds like he doesn’t want to play anymore? If there was some tension between Kraft, Belichick, and Brady last year, why not play up the negative and ignore the positive? It’s smart. It will get people talking. It will get eyes back to your site. Nobody wants to hear “this is what’s happening in the world” anymore; we want stories, narratives, sensationalism. And in the dog-eat-dog world of the entertainment industry, ESPN is doing what it has to do.
To be perfectly clear here, it is absolutely part of ESPN’s job, as well as the job of any reporter, to give us news. When something is up, reporters need to sift through the facts, interview sources, and report their findings. And to say that everything coming out of Bristol, CT is fabricated and based on nothing is the same kind of homeristic fanboyism that we Patriots fans detest in folks who refuse to acknowledge anything good the Pats do, ever. 2018 has undoubtedly been a tumultuous offseason for the Patriots, and it’s fair for anyone to report on that. I’m in no way faulting ESPN, or anyone for that matter, for calling a spade a spade. At the same time, however, it’s also important to acknowledge that it’s in ESPN’s best business interests to treat the Patriots a certain way, spin the storylines to a certain extent, in order to maximize traffic and grab some ratings. If you want to get mad at that, go right ahead - but negative pageviews count just the same as happy pageviews, and that’s all that really matters to pretty much any media outlet. If you’re really interested in stopping the way that ESPN chooses to do business (not just with the Patriots, to be honest, with everyone and everything), then just stop watching. Stop visiting the website. Stop giving their reporters clicks. Maybe they’ll find themselves forced to go somewhere else for some guaranteed clicks.
But until that happens, I hope everyone here knows enough to realize that the “anti-Patriots” agenda that ESPN spouts sometimes has nothing to do with the Patriots. It’s all about not going under. ESPN better hope that Brady plays next year, Gronk comes back, Belichick keeps coaching, and the Patriots are good for a little while longer; if not, what will they possibly talk about?