ESPN wrestling with fiction/non-fiction in deciding to 'cover' WWE

Consumer media options have exploded in the past decade, and ESPN has tried to keep pace by expanding its own niche offerings. Those efforts have included stand-alone sites such as Grantland (later shuttered), FiveThirtyEight and The Undefeated, as well as attempts to target specific audiences in the form of espnW and ESPN Deportes. The company has also launched new content verticals inside the larger ESPN digital footprint, such as esports, MMA and gambling.

From a strategic standpoint, these efforts make sense, as they promise to bring new consumers into the ESPN fold. And where there’s new audience, there’s normally new revenue. Plus, in a digital world, the constraints of airtime have disappeared and customer choice has exploded. There’s never been a better time for media companies to diversify.

But in my May column on esports, I alluded to one new subject area that I could not comfortably get behind: ESPN’s expanded coverage of pro wrestling, specifically WWE.

Inside of ESPN, those who favored the decision to launch a WWE section -- which debuted on ESPN.com on Aug. 11 -- argue that it’s a chance to reach new audiences and represents a sizable business opportunity. That’s undoubtedly true. But the determining factor for ESPN coverage areas should be more than business -- otherwise, you could make a strong argument for launching all sorts of things that have no connection whatsoever to sports. And it can’t simply be whether the subject matter inherently involves “athleticism” as that would raise questions about esports, drone racing, poker, spelling bees and other subjects ESPN now covers.

To me, the line ESPN has to be careful when crossing is the one separating fiction and nonfiction, real competition and pure entertainment. And pro wrestling is simply well-performed fiction. For a news organization, I think this is a poor fit, and one that comes with real risk.

This opinion isn’t based on having a particularly strong personal feeling either way about pro wrestling. I don’t watch it, but know plenty of people who do and have a passion that matches any you’ll see about any subject. I also don’t have concerns that an audience would be duped by the staged nature of pro wrestling; pretty much everyone who watches it is in the know.

The issue is that ESPN’s decision to cover something where the outcome is predetermined -- yes, insert your Jets-Patriots joke here, Bostonians -- undoubtedly creates journalistic challenges for the network.

First off, what qualifies as “news” when an entire event is scripted? Certainly, the outcome of a match matters to those who care. But it isn’t “news” the way ESPN defines it, and can’t be dropped inside a list of headlines about the NFL, NCAA or MMA, any more than coverage of a Jed Bartlet speech from “The West Wing” would have made its way into CNN’s top news stories.

Dan Kaufman, ESPN’s senior deputy editor of content development, oversees the new WWE vertical and is aware of the challenges of “covering” pro wrestling.

“We obviously know that the predetermined nature and scripting means you have to cover it a different way and be careful about it,” he said. “We’ll acknowledge it’s a script and report how well they did with it. It’s all about distinguishing news and plot.”

I like Kaufman’s differentiation between “news” and “plot.” But, alas, that’s exactly the rub. As long as an activity is truly competitive and not scripted, the results and actions of its participants can be considered news -- and can easily fit inside ESPN’s reporting structure.

When it’s plot, it’s not so simple.

Here’s a hypothetical: What if you’re “covering” a WWE match and a wrestler goes down with an apparent injury? Is that news? Is it even an injury or just part of the script? What act would it take to prove to a journalist that a wrestler was actually injured? And if that injury proves to be real, how do you cover that in the context of a match in which the buildup and outcome are both staged? Do you separate the news from the plot and produce two different stories or segments? I don’t know the answers, but I do know there’s no shortage of questions.

“It’s an open dialogue about how to make it work and to make sure we don’t get played,” Kaufman said.

The new WWE section is ESPN’s primary push into pro wrestling but not the only one. Each Tuesday, the 9 p.m. ET SportsCenter features anchor Jonathan Coachman narrating a package about WWE.

I asked a number of people at ESPN about how pro wrestling will fit into the network’s news coverage, and the answer was pretty simple: barely at all.

“I think it rarely will fit into the news world,” said David Kraft, ESPN’s executive editor of news operations. “I don’t have a huge problem with doing [a wrestling section]. I just think we need to be clear that we’re covering the spectacle of it. I don’t think there are too many ‘news’ events, like who won or who got traded.”

Another area of interest will be how ESPN uses its powerful channels to promote the WWE coverage. The network was aggressive in promoting WWE’s SummerSlam in the days after the vertical launched -- with, for a time, five WWE stories among the top eight items listed under the news section on ESPN.com -- but that was likely more to promote the launch than what I’d expect to see normally. On a recent Monday, for example, there was only one wrestling item on the first 10 “screens” of ESPN.com, an article on the death of legend Harry "Mr. Fuji" Fujiwara.

Despite media reports to the contrary this past fall, ESPN has no formal business relationship with WWE. While there is communication between the organizations, ESPN holds no rights to WWE events and “covers” WWE events the same way it does others. The lack of formal deal with the WWE is probably a good thing, as it gives ESPN an easy out should any controversies arise.

Look, there’s certainly a path here that could work, even with all the issues this raises: Keep WWE out of the news section, highlight content about it only in areas in which confusion would be minimal and hope that those interested will find pro wrestling coverage via direct navigational click, social media or search.

The SportsCenter treatment of WWE, for example, avoids any complication by doing one fixed segment per week, anchored by Coachman -- a former WWE commentator. Coachman’s involvement fits into SportsCenter’s strategy of encouraging anchors to openly display personal passions in order to better connect with fans. Outside of that weekly segment, SportsCenter doesn’t show highlights of WWE -- in fact, it didn’t cover the recent SummerSlam at all.

Kaufman, for one, is optimistic ESPN can work WWE into its platforms without creating confusion.

“We’re not coming into this saying it’s sports; we’re saying it’s entertainment,” he said. “We know that a huge segment of our fans are wrestling fans. And, like with esports, we’re also looking for new fans. ... We obviously know that the predetermined nature and scripting means you have to cover it a different way and be careful about it in a different way.”

Readers who responded via email, Twitter and Facebook to my query about ESPN’s coverage of WWE were largely split. Most of the email was negative; most of the Facebook comments were negative; and Twitter leaned positive, though that was goosed a bit by some pro-WWE supporters urging their followers to speak up. Here’s a sample of the negative feedback:

  • “It's like putting a trashy novel in the nonfiction section, making everything around it questionable by association.” -- Matthew Silverman, via Twitter.

  • “I understand the need for page views but to cover a scripted show is kind of silly. Maybe I'll think differently when there's a Star Wars news section.” -- Matthew Edwards, via email.

  • “Athletic + competition = sport. If you are missing one of those elements, it isn't sports. Chess lacks athletics. WWE lacks competition.” -- George Arnold, via Facebook.

Others were more positive:

  • “No harm, no foul. If you don't like the WWE, don't click on the links, follow the Twitter account, etc. and you won't even know it's there. But for those that do like it, it's a cool look at how ‘mainstream media’ covers pro wrestling. So far, so good.” -- James Bunting, via email.

  • “I love all the new WWE content & breaking news that ESPN is providing. I go to ESPN for all my other sporting news & it's nice to not have to go to other websites to get my WWE news & it's finally all in the same site, app, etc. I can finally delete my Bleacher Report app now!” -- Richard Garza, via email.

But even some who were fine with WWE coverage haven’t been impressed by the early returns:

  • “I am still willing to give the WWE section time to see if there is any critical coverage of WWE. It seems to be overly optimistic. However, it seems so far instead of independently reporting WWE news … you are reposting from WWE.com.” -- David Taub, via email.

  • “Acting as an extra arm of WWE's PR department isn't really worthwhile. But, reporting on both the good and the bad of WWE fairly would be.” -- Daniel Jackson, via email.

  • “The reporting is only positive and seems more like PR. It avoids controversial subjects. In theory it's great. In practice...” -- Adam Bergman, via Twitter.

Few would doubt that ESPN’s coverage of the WWE is a significant audience and revenue opportunity. And, as stated earlier, I have no quibble with ESPN taking risks in a quickly diversifying media market. But wandering outside your journalistic comfort zone comes with even greater risks, and I suspect there may be some hard lessons learned along the way.