Tebowmania: ESPN exuberance or excess?

With the Super Bowl upcoming and the NFL playoffs in the rearview mirror, we have the time and distance necessary to examine the phenomenon of Tebowmania and, specifically, to scrutinize ESPN's role in spreading the craze during the 2011 season.

Tebowmania was the national obsession with the Denver Broncos' quarterback. But it could also be described as an affliction besetting the media.

As watchers of all media, not just ESPN, we at the Poynter Review Project can verify that Tebowmania was in full force across all media, not just ESPN. New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote about Tebow. National Public Radio did numerous stories, including an "All Things Considered" piece examining the mystery of Tebow's success and a "Morning Edition" story dissecting the grip Tebow has over Denver. Sports Illustrated featured Tebow on its cover, as did the NFL, which opted to debut its new magazine this fall by leading off with the former Heisman Trophy winner.

But ESPN took the cake, along with a lot of criticism, when it came to Tebowmania. And it goes back a long way. From the moment Tebow was drafted in the first round in 2010, folks at the network took notice.

"That was unexpected," said Craig Bengtson, senior coordinating producer for "SportsCenter." "From that day on, everyone who follows the NFL was waiting to see what happens with Tim Tebow."

Tebow coverage took off for ESPN in 2011. Among the highlights:

  • Long before the NFL season opened, ESPN opened its Year of the Quarterback with an hourlong documentary on Tebow, which aired several times throughout the year.

  • Commentator Skip Bayless spent an inordinate amount of time on "First Take" offering up praise for Tebow.

  • Bayless' advocacy became the primary material for DJ Steve Porter's catchy Auto-Tune mashup, "All he does is win" used on "First Take."

  • Tebow was the cover of the Oct. 31 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

  • "SportsCenter" dedicated not one, but two special shows to Tebow.

It's hard to judge any of this as excessive. Tebow garnered a lot of buzz coming into the pros after a career in which his Florida Gators won two BCS championships and he won the Heisman, and was responsible for a special NCAA rule that forbids messages in eye paint after he used his to cite Bible verses. His Broncos No. 15 jersey tops NFL sales. He holds the record for most tweets per second on Twitter. He is a genuine social phenomenon, even without ESPN.

Thus came the messiah metaphors. ESPN The Magazine writer Tim Keown wrote his October story as a loose retelling of Jesus among the crowds. He described Tebow as a vessel of hope. It fit in nicely with the Plan B theme of that issue. (It was supposed to be the NBA preview issue, changed by the lockout.)

The Plan B issue featured Tebow on the cover (the best art available, according to Chad Millman, ESPN The Magazine's editor-in-chief.) The Sunday after that issue, Denver went to Miami, where Tebow brought the Broncos back from a 15-0 deficit in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, forcing overtime and eventually winning the game.

And suddenly Tebow really was a god. And he kept on winning, at least for a while, ultimately leading the Broncos to the playoffs, and prompting lots and lots of chatter along the way.

ESPN's success comes not from its coverage of games but from its ability to extend those games into a story and tell that story from different angles. Stories need main characters. Tebow is undoubtedly a main character, an epic hero to some, an unexposed great pretender to others.

Everyone we talked to at the network was unapologetic about the coverage. Whenever Tebow plays, fans watch. When sports anchors and radio hosts are talking about Tebow, the ratings go up. Every time Tebow does something unexpected or new, there will be a story. And you can expect someone, somewhere at ESPN to cover it.

So who objects to all this? As far as we can tell, the resentment comes from two places. When ESPN binges on a single story, viewers who value variety are offended. Then there are fans who care mainly about the play on the field. They follow the sport, not the story.

Les Young from Chesapeake, Va., wrote, "The ESPN sick love affair with Tim Tebow is way over the top. I've never seen so much attention heaped on a below average quarterback. It's on every show, and on the website every day. ESPN is the worldwide leader at something, alienating people who do not share their man crush."

The general underlying principle shared by the critics is that coverage of an athlete should relate to that athlete's talent and success. Some fans even accuse the network of fanning the flames of Tebowmania to ensure the story lives on. On that point, there is certainly a disconnect. Coverage of individual athletes is not a meritocracy at ESPN; it is based on what the crowd wants.

There are athletes who "move the needle," said Michael Shiffman, a senior coordinating producer for "SportsCenter." Critics might talk about fatigue over Tebow or any other athlete who draws disproportionate attention (Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Brett Favre et al), but folks at ESPN look at hard data.

"If you think interest is going down, the ratings show you otherwise," Shiffman said.

And then sometimes a story jumps off the sports pages.

"We are aware when things transcend sports. Hopefully we are out ahead of it and we've seen it coming," Shiffman said. "We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't see it coming."

That is the moment of disconnect. When a story gets bigger than the sport itself, and ESPN leans into that narrative rather than turning away, some fans throw up their hands and cry, "excess." But an all-sports network is the very definition of excess. We're not inclined to fault folks for doing the very thing that's made them successful.