Geography lesson: Breaking down the bias in ESPN's coverage

In deference to fan fatigue with saturation coverage of a certain former Green Bay Packer quarterback, I will not dwell on that topic. What I have to say on the matter can be found at the end of this column. While it is still summer, I want to focus instead on a perennial summer complaint -- the charge of East Coast bias in ESPN's coverage of Major League Baseball.

Five summers ago, in ESPN's pre-ombudsman era, the existence of East Coast bias was debated on ESPN.com by several Page 2 columnists, including West Coaster Eric Neel (in the affirmative) and East Coaster Jeff Merron (in the negative). There was a Sports Nation poll, apparently still open (it registered my vote as the 43,094th), indicating widespread belief (70.5 percent) that "media coverage of sports is slanted toward the east."

For a good-humored approach to the rancorous subject, I recommend a trip to those archived 2003 stories. From me, you are going to get a no-fun-at-all look at the subject, with wonky charts and statements from some of those responsible for ESPN's baseball coverage. Even so, you will only get a partial, provisional take on the topic, because when I began to research the East Coast bias question, I quickly realized it would take the entire remainder of my term as ombudsman to sort it out adequately.

The first thing I want to note is that complaints about East Coast bias, though still voluminous, are down this summer from last. The slack has been taken up by complaints of East of the Mississippi bias. For every traditional complaint like this one -- "I realize that the Yankees and Red Sox are the only teams the baseball gods truly love, but for the love of Kevin Costner, give the Angels some respect!" -- I get two like this -- "I am sick and tired of seeing only the Cubs on ESPN's baseball coverage. It's either the Red Sox vs. Yankees or the Cubs vs. someone." Or this: "If you're west of the Mississippi, you don't exist."

Confusing the bias picture, though, are complaints like this one from a St. Louis Cardinals' fan: "It's still East Coast, West Coast, Everyone Else."

On the evidence of my mailbag, the regional center of bias this season keeps shifting, day to day, week to week. When slugger Manny Ramirez moved from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, the spotlight of East Coast bias seemed to cross the country with him, although Dodger manager Joe Torre, whose departure from the Yankees last year was accompanied by several "End of an Era" "SportsCenter" specials, seemed to escape the big beam in LA.

Who's on most?

The complaints I receive about alleged East Coast bias are many-pronged, aimed sometimes at ESPN's event programming, sometimes at its news and analysis shows. To get beyond my own and viewers' subjectivity on the matter, I needed some hard facts, so I went first to Len DeLuca, ESPN senior vice president for programming and acquisitions, to get some data about the most quantifiable aspect of ESPN's baseball coverage: what games it chooses to telecast.

DeLuca provided me with a chart showing how often teams appeared on ESPN's scheduled Sunday, Monday and Wednesday Night Baseball broadcasts, up to the All-Star break in 2007 and 2008. The chart shows the season-to-season variation, with teams listed in order from the most increased number of ESPN telecasts to the most decreased. The most notable changes, by far, are in the frequency of Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees appearances. Up to the All-Star break, ESPN had telecast 10 Cubs games this year, eight more than in 2007, and seven Yankee games, eight fewer than in 2007.

The Boston Red Sox, the defending World Series champions, were the most telecast team this year during the same period, with 11 appearances. Ten teams remained invisible, with zero telecasts, up to the All-Star break. Most of those zero-telecast teams were at or near the bottom of their divisions, but the no-showed Florida Marlins were third in a tight NL East race, only one game behind the second-place Mets, who had been telecast seven times.

A team's projected and actual standing in division races is an important part of what determines ESPN's selections, but it is not the whole story -- nor does ESPN pretend it is. And fans who call for equity -- giving all 30 MLB teams anything close to equal airtime -- can forget about it.

"It is long proven in NBA and NFL and MLB that spreading the wealth to 30 or 32 teams is a prescription for deflating ratings," DeLuca said. "The equity approach might have been possible 30 years ago, but now that there is such a surplus of games to watch on network and cable, the mandate is no longer to get everyone on."

By the end of the 2007 season, ESPN had televised 24 of 30 MLB teams at least once and expects to do about the same this season.

Getting real about ratings

In 2005, ESPN signed a reported $2.4 billion contract for an MLB rights package, extending through 2013. The price tag insured that the top priority in selecting games for telecast would be ratings.

The Ratings Game

Want more information on ratings and rankings, pursuant to to ESPN's baseball coverage? ESPN offered numerous documents and research points regarding the coverage and the issue of bias. Go to charts

"Yes, the No. 1 goal is ratings," DeLuca said, "and [No.] 2 is following the best stories in baseball -- and 2 will usually drive 1."

Ratings matter most on Sunday, because ESPN pays a higher rights premium for Sunday games than those on Monday or Wednesday nights. On Sundays, MLB cooperates with ESPN by moving one game to the unusually late starting time of 8 p.m. ET, and it gives ESPN national exclusivity in televising that game -- the only MLB game of the night. On Monday and Wednesday nights, ESPN gets nonexclusive rights to games played at a regularly scheduled time, 7 p.m. ET, when most of those games are also being televised by a team's local broadcaster.

"In a national package," DeLuca said, "we feel the one way to stand out is to give fans the most compelling match that has national impact -- which means that a low-ranked team is unlikely to be on 'Sunday Night Baseball' unless they are playing a team that leads the division. And to maximize ratings, get the best stories, we are going to go where teams that have performed for us reside. The reason that the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox have been on is because they perform for us, as do the Cubs, the Cardinals and, recently, the White Sox."

ESPN's Integrated Media Research team offered all sorts of charted ratings information to back up DeLuca's words. Some highlights for the chart-averse: The three highest-rated "Sunday Night Baseball" games so far this season were all Yankees-Red Sox. On July 28, an hour-long rain delay during a Yankees-Red Sox game drew a significantly higher rating (2.45) than most hours of actual Sunday Night play between other teams. Over the past three seasons, the most highly rated matchup after Yankees-Red Sox has been Yankees-Mets.

When national ratings for "Sunday Night Baseball" are broken down by region, Yankees-Red Sox games show stronger drawing power in most regions than games involving a region's team. A strong exception is the West Central region, where Cubs-Cardinals games draw as high ratings as Yankees-Red Sox games draw in the Northeast.

What about the Rays?

If ratings were the only thing used in determining scheduling, and if MLB did not restrict the number of times a team could appear on Sunday Night Baseball (five this year), ESPN's telecasts would be even more weighted toward a few big-draw teams. But there is also the second, less predictable "best story" factor.

"It is hard to anticipate something like Tampa Bay, which has been stunning this year," said DeLuca, referring to the team's season-to-date lead over the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East. "But we have already had four of their games this year on Monday and Wednesday."

Why not on the flagship "Sunday Night Baseball"? Sunday night games create a scheduling anomaly for MLB, affecting travel plans and costs for the teams that may be playing in a distant city the next day, so MLB requires more advance planning for those games. By Dec. 22, ESPN has to specify the first eight Sunday games of the upcoming season it wants to telecast. By the same date, it must reserve three matchups for each of the remaining 18 Sunday nights of the regular season, from which it will later pick one game to telecast, giving three weeks notice in midseason and two weeks notice toward the end of the season.

So if a team such as Tampa Bay is not on ESPN's radar in December, it is not likely to find a spot on the "Sunday Night Baseball" schedule. Shifting with the winds of the season becomes the province of Monday and Wednesday night baseball.

What does all this information amount to? In its telecasts, especially on Sunday nights, especially in the first third of the season, ESPN tilts toward perennial high-drawing teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Cubs, with seasonal variations in the relative prominence of those teams based on their pennant prospects. Later, though, especially on the more flexibly scheduled Monday and Wednesday nights, DeLuca said, "Ultimately, it comes down to, how many games behind, what's going on with the wild card, and let's go."

Mismatching highlights

If a degree of East/Northeast tilt is virtually inescapable in ESPN's telecasts, does ESPN's news coverage of MLB follow suit or provide the corrective? Are news shows expected to give a boost to ratings by giving extra coverage to the most telecast teams?

"Baseball Tonight" anchor Karl Ravech said, "I know, having done this show since 1995, no one has ever said to me or a producer that we need to have these teams prominent, because we are telecasting them. I understand the premise [of East Coast bias], but I don't think it applies to this program. When we go into meetings, we just look for the best matchups, wherever they are."

On any given summer day, though, I receive complaints from viewers detecting bias in the sequencing of their team's highlights on either "Baseball Tonight" or "SportsCenter." Why else, they ask, would this or that game appear later in the show than they thought it should?

Ravech said "Baseball Tonight" always intends to lead with the best matchup, which by midseason usually means the game that has the most impact on a tight division race, such as the Cubs-Brewers four-game series of late July. Some nights, though, other factors -- breaking news of a trade or a no-hitter or a dugout-clearing brawl -- will steal the lead and affect the sequence of the highlights that follow.

"It's all based on how teams affect one another, primarily division-oriented, and that will dictate how the show will go," Ravech said. As an example, he cited a night in which "Baseball Tonight" planned to start with Brewers-Cubs highlights, but to accommodate late news of the trade of Mark Teixeira to the Angels, switched the lead to the Angels-Red Sox game.

"Because that matchup primarily affected the AL East division race -- there is no race against the Angels -- the next highlight was the Rays-Jays," he said. "If the Angels had been playing the White Sox that night, the next game would have been a Twins game."

Ravech's description of editorial decision-making was borne out by a task I gave myself -- reviewing two weeks of 12 a.m. ET "Baseball Tonight" and 1 a.m. "SportsCenter" broadcasts to compare how they sequenced MLB highlights. Both shows tended to cluster highlights of games that included the top three teams in a division, but the sequencing of those clusters was often significantly different, so that the same game might be the first highlight on one show and the 11th on the other.

Mike Shiffman, senior coordinating producer of the 1 a.m. "SportsCenter," describes the highlight selection process like this: "Early in the season, before races are fully developed, we may look for a theme to group highlights such as win streaks, losing streaks, aces pitching, fantastic finishes, etc. As we get deeper into the season, it certainly becomes about grouping the highlights based on division or wild card race; however, with a full two months to go, we may deviate off that plan for a night in August."

One such night was Aug. 6, when a Brewers-Reds highlight that was played 11th on "Baseball Tonight" became the lead highlight on "SportsCenter." Brewers' slugger Prince Fielder had apologized for a dugout dust-up with teammate Manny Parra, and, says Shiffman, "We felt the Brewers, the day after their altercation, and with Prince Fielder addressing the situation, should be the lead highlight. That the Cubs game was a slugfest, and the Cardinals game had a walk-off home run, flowed nicely as a NL Central grouping."

"Baseball Tonight" that night led with two in-progress AL Central games, whose outcomes would determine whether the White Sox and Twins remained tied for first in that division.

The fact that "SportsCenter" and "Baseball Tonight" sometimes make such different calls, and that there is no consistent pattern of favoring one division over another in the sequencing of highlights on either show, should put to rest the notion of an ESPN-wide collusion to promote certain MLB teams. But the notion persists.

Ravech suggested a reason for that perception.

"If we are guilty of something," Ravech said of "Baseball Tonight," "it is making sure to promote the superstars of the game. Because of the enormous impact that fantasy leagues have now on fans, we often try to make sure that the biggest names -- not the teams, the names -- get their attention, because these are the players people have on their fantasy teams."

Players such as Ramirez, who, unlike his new manager, took that spotlight from Boston to L.A.

I think the root of complaints about bias on ESPN derives not from the selection and sequencing of highlights on news shows, not even from ratings-based telecasting decisions, which most viewers grudgingly understand, but from the disproportionate attention given certain marquee players on programs across the ESPN board.

Viewers noted that more attention was given to Ramirez' approach of the 500-home run milestone than was given Ken Griffey's approach to his 600th home run; more attention was given to Joba Chamberlain's move from middle reliever to starter in the Yankees' pitching rotation than would be given to other young pitchers making similar transitions on other teams.

To my mind, if there is collusion at ESPN across platforms and programs, it is in the creation, maintenance and promotion of superstars with the potential for crossover appeal among diehard and casual fans and followers of popular culture. The most egregious recent example of this phenomenon comes, of course, not from baseball but from football. And that brings me full circle.

Back to Brett

The slow unraveling of Favre's unretirement was the occasion of blistering criticism from viewers about ESPN news coverage over the past month. I have devoted whole columns to the topic of over-coverage and "SportsCenter" specials unwarranted by news, so I don't need to repeat myself now, except to say there was a new aspect to the complaints I received.

Viewers were especially offended by anchors, reporters, analysts and pundits who joked about the absurdity of the over-coverage, as if they bore no responsibility for it. Some examples:

• "The way the network consciously worked Favre into EVERYTHING they covered is embarrassing. I especially feel insulted when anchors poke fun of and question how and why this Favre situation is so out of control. It's as if they have been instructed to act surprised by the hysteria. However, the glaring problem with this is ESPN CREATED THIS HYSTERIA."

• "Both the on-air and print reporters are all too eager to jokingly acknowledge the story's extreme irrelevance and then immediately launch into further pointless speculation and content-less 'developments.' The fact that it seems everyone involved in perpetuating this nonsense fully acknowledges that it is indeed nonsense is neither cute nor self-aware; it is sickening in its cynicism."

Several viewers made mention of Patrick Hruby's ESPN.com column, "Who will save us from Favre!" which began: "We need a noble champion, a dauntless martyr, someone -- anyone -- to save us from the all-Brett Favre, all-the-time news cycle that threatens to engulf both the sports world and the entire physical universe, one replayed clip of Favre delivering a shovel pass through the snow at a time, forever radiating into deep space and beyond."

It was a funny column, but also disingenuous. The only one who can save us from too much Favre -- or too much Manny or too much anyone -- is ESPN.