Thirty-three years and more than 50,000 episodes on, SportsCenter is less a television show or a convenient way to catch up on the day in sports than a great mechanical contraption gone awry, its parts moving independently not just of one another but of any obvious directing intelligence.
We might like to ignore the unwieldy device as its appendages flail and sparks burst from exposed wires, but its broadcast dictates the narratives of the day. If SportsCenter decides to force Tim Tebow on you, you—or at least the people with whom you talk sports—will be thinking and talking about Tim Tebow. No hockey on SportsCenter? Hockey doesn't exist.
So we set about unscrewing the rear panel of this monstrosity and figuring out exactly how the gears and mechanisms worked. We launched Bristolmetrics, which called for me to track the content of every 11 p.m. edition of SportsCenter. I spent 23,000 minutes—16 entire days!—of my 2012 in thrall to the machine.
When not wiping up the cerebral fluid and bits of gray matter that leaked out of my nose as a result, I found answers to the great questions that have confounded us all. Did SportsCenter actually promote a Tebowcentric agenda? Of course. Did it actually neglect and ignore the NHL? Of courser.
Some questions, though, turned out to be a bit more complex.
The graphic above, by my fellow Deadspinner Reuben Fischer-Baum, shows the correlation between winning percentage—or points, in the case of the possibly nonexistent NHL—and SportsCenter mentions for teams across the four major leagues.* Our focus here is on just what about a team attracted the attention of SportsCenter's all-seeing eyebeams over the course of a normal season. Our conclusion is that there was a reasonably strong correlation between winning percentage and SportsCenter mentions. It was statistically significant for all leagues except the NHL.
Is a straight valuation of success really what's going on, though? As an experiment, let's instead plot SportsCenter mentions against the cash values of franchises, as estimated by Forbes. (Forbes's MLB estimates were updated after we ran our numbers.)
For MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL's American contingent, the value of a franchise actually had a stronger correlation with SportsCenter mentions than winning percentage did. (The NFL, we should note, would have an even stronger correlation if not for the New Orleans Saints' Bountygate coverage bonanza—see that one dot all the way in the upper left-hand corner—skewing the sample. It's also pretty clear that a lot of the MLB correlation is tied up in the value of, and ESPN's obsession with, the Yankees.) It would appear that on SportsCenter, as everywhere, it pays to be rich.
We can infer from the above that the secret algorithms that send SportsCenter lurching in particular directions are based in part on the quality of a given team and more so on how popular, or at least rich, that team is. It's clear, though, that this only goes so far. The SportsCenter transmission, after all, privileges the worst and poorest teams in the NFL above the best and richest in the EPL.
How powerful is this effect? The chart below should give an idea of just how hegemonic the hegemony of the hegemonic sports really is.
In reality as defined by SportsCenter, there is no such thing as "the four major leagues." Add coverage of golf, NASCAR, club and international soccer, the Olympics, and tennis to what the NHL got, and you still don't reach half the time spent on the NFL. Football and basketball, in both professional and nominally amateur flavors, took up well over half of SportsCenter's time between them. Add in baseball and you've accounted for about three-quarters. Tennis—all of it, the entire sport—got about half as much coverage as Mark Sanchez did all by himself, and he sucks.
As Sanchez's inexplicable prominence suggests, the great SportsCenter engine runs not just on money and major sports to which ESPN happens to hold broadcast rights, but also on celebrity. Watch the show at the right time of year, and you might come away thinking that there are only a half-dozen or so athletes in the entire world.
To put in perspective just how fixed SportsCenter gets on the anointed, consider that Tim Tebow got 17 percent more mentions than successful professional quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers put together. Then consider that he wasn't, unbelievably enough, even one of SportsCenter's five most fussed-over athletes.
As you can see, if you want the all-powerful SportsCenter to aid your personal #branding campaign, it helps to either play basketball or line up under center. Of the 20 most-mentioned athletes, in fact, 11 play in the NBA and seven were quarterbacks (assuming Tebow counts as one). Golf and baseball each claimed one spot. No one else, from Serena Williams to Lionel Messi, rated at all.
Yes, you can! The following charts, by David Roher, plot the frequency of certain words as used over the course of the year.
"Peyton" vs. "Eli"
The big spike for Peyton Manning occurred in the beginning of the 2012 NFL offseason, when he was cut by the Indianapolis Colts and then signed with the Denver Broncos. After the Giants beat the Pats in Super Bowl XLVI, Peyton dwarfed Eli in mentions for the rest of the year.
At the peak of that February 2012 spike, the name "Lin" was by itself nearly one percent of all words uttered on SportsCenter. The second surge corresponds to Lin's free agency drama. As you can see, he was largely ignored after joining the Houston Rockets.
"Paterno" vs. "Sandusky"
The first spike in "Paterno" happened after he died. The second occurred last summer, when the NCAA sanctioned Penn State. Outside of a few blips during his trial, Jerry Sandusky received much less coverage than Paterno did.
Oh, sports pundit'sbeloved descriptors, you never disappoint us. The first surge in "elite" came after Super Bowl XLVI, during the ensuing discussion about Eli Manning and whether or not he was, er, elite. The second occurred during Peyton Manning's free agency, when ESPN debated if he was still a top-tier quarterback. ("Elite" had a very strong correlation with football, specifically quarterbacks.) "Clutch" tended to span across all sports, but usage peaked in relation to LeBron James after the Miami Heat won their first title, leading to the brief retirement of the LeBron-as-choker narrative and the consequent ascension of the one presenting him as a clutch god.
- The two terms most associated with "God" were "me" and "my."
- The word most associated with the Baltimore Orioles was "win."
- The two most common words mentioned with "hockey" were, of all things, the first names of SportsCenter anchors Linda Cohn and Steve Levy. It truly doesn't exist.
CUMULATIVE STATISTICS (2012)
Total time: 23,052.75 minutes
Time (minus commercials): 17,361.25
NFL: 4,046.25 (23.3%)
NBA: 3,330.5 minutes (19.2%)
MLB: 2,916.5 (16.8%)
SportsCenter staples**: 2,289 (13.2%)
College football: 1,329.75 (7.7%)
College basketball: 1,181.25 (6.8%)
Golf: 580.75 (3.3%)
NHL: 459.5 (2.7%)
NASCAR: 362.25 (2.1%)
Other***: 315 (1.8%)
Soccer: 217.75 (1.3%)
Olympics: 166.5 (.9%)
Tennis: 166.25 (.9%)
MOST-COVERED TEAMS BY SPORT (2012)
Miami Heat (NBA): 962.75 minutes (5.5%)
New York Yankees (MLB): 410.25 (2.4%)
New York Giants (NFL): 362.75 (2.1%)
Alabama Crimson Tide (college football): 208.75 (1.2%)
Kentucky Wildcats (college basketball): 155.25 (0.9%)
Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL): 56.5 (0.3%)
MOST-MENTIONED SPORTS FIGURES (2012)
1) LeBron James: 1,930 mentions
2) Kobe Bryant: 1,345
3) Peyton Manning: 1,218
4) Dwyane Wade: 1,167
5) Kevin Durant: 1,109
6) Tiger Woods: 1,011
7) Tim Tebow: 976
8) Tom Brady: 894
9) Jeremy Lin: 871
10) Derrick Rose: 830
11) Carmelo Anthony: 804
12) Dwight Howard: 752
13) Eli Manning: 621
14) Russell Westbrook: 578
15) Rajon Rondo: 568
16) Robert Griffin III: 567
17) Josh Hamilton: 460
18) Blake Griffin: 457
19) Drew Brees: 433
20) Aaron Rodgers: 401
* This analysis had to exclude teams without unique names—e.g., the Jets, who play both hockey and football. I also left out the 2012 playoff champions and runners-up in any sport, because they attract tons of attention regardless of their regular-season performance.
** Includes things like the "Top 10," "Encore," "What 2 Watch 4," etc.
*** Sports included cycling, lacrosse, Little League baseball, college hockey, arena football, softball, extreme sports, drag racing, Formula One, and IndyCar.
Graphics by Reuben Fischer-Baum and David Roher.