The great thing about sports—maybe the greatest thing—is that winners and losers are built into the process. One player beats another, which leads to a score which leads to a win which leads to a trophy and a celebration and, if big enough, a ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes in New York City.
Sports—I should say sport, as a construct—are, is and forever will be based on the basic identification, and celebration, of winners and losers; winning and losing.
That’s why we don’t need an awards show to tell us who the winners are in sports every year. We saw the Golden State Warriors, New England Patriots, Chicago Blackhawks and San Francisco Giants win championships. We saw the Ohio State Buckeyes and Duke Blue Devils and U.S. Women’s Soccer team hoist trophies amidst buckets of confetti. We saw Floyd Mayweather and Rhonda Rousey remain victorious.
We don’t need to give those people awards because they’ve already earned them.
And yet the ESPY Awards exist because someone at ESPN thought of a brilliant idea more than two decades ago and snowballs have a tendency to roll downhill in the entertainment business.
Ask anyone with so much as a pen-cap full of journalistic credibility at ESPN, off the record, and they tell you how much they loathe the ESPYs.
To all the ESPN-ers not invited to the ESPYs (and post-parties) tonight, your company still loves you. Just not as much as they love them.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) July 15, 2015
The line between media and those we (read: they at ESPN) watch is never more squiggled than at an event run by a media company giving out awards to the athletes it covers because those athletes are awesome, and hobnobbing with awesome people makes said media company look more awesome.
“Hi, this is the ESPYs. Can we get Kevin Hart? Dammit is Kevin Hart available or not?!? Tell him he can sit next to Wade. No, we’re not giving him LeBron.”
The entertainment industry is different than sports because the only way to win—other than at the box office—is if someone nominates you for an award and then hands you a trophy. The way to win in entertainment is to be given a trophy. In sports, you’re given the trophy after you win.
Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy…ESPY? Will anyone’s career be defined by winning an ESPY, and if so, were they much of an athlete in the first place? Acting and singing careers have been literally defined by winning awards. There’s an entire business model in the movie industry banking on the Oscar bump.
Even when you lose an award in the entertainment industry, you win. How many posters do you see the phrase “Academy Award Nominee” in an attempt to add some legitimacy to a film. That’s like Chris Paul trying to get a job by saying he’s been a “Playoff Participant” and asking for more money because of it.
There is no greater ESPY scenario than LeBron James being nominated in the category Best Championship Performance for a performance in which he did not win a championship.
LeBron is in that category against a college softball player, baseball player who rode a horse during a parade and an actual horse. Only at the ESPYs.
Caitlyn Jenner's 2015 ESPY Awards dates revealed: Find out which family members are attending! http://t.co/ahS1DW3grs
— E! News (@enews) July 14, 2015
And as much as we (read: I) love to mock the sheer nature of sports media’s biggest and most unabashedly conflicted night, we (read: I) have to admit that the event has turned into something rather incredible for ESPN.
This year the sports network has handed over the event to ABC, perhaps finally admitting that the ESPYs are far more about the E in ESPN than the S.
ESPN will counter-program the ESPY Awards with a replay of the Home Run Derby on ESPN and the 2015 Pan American Games presented by Cricket Wireless on ESPN2 and no I swear that isn’t a clever joke about the kind of buzz the Pan Am Games are getting. (Chirp…chirp.)
The ESPYs are nothing more than a way for ESPN to stay at the top of the sports media pile, to glad-hand the celebrities and star athletes they cover and take care of their own top-level talent with a night out in sparkly dresses and shiny lapels, while reports funnel out that Worldwide Leader is being asked to take some serious cost-cutting measures elsewhere.
And yet in other ways, the ESPYs have been a lot more. The moments provided by ESPN—manufactured moments that they are—are indelible. Jim Valvano’s speech is, to this day, one of the great speeches in the history of sports, up there with Gehrig considering himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.
Stuart Scott’s speech before his passing still resonates with sports fans as well, and this year ESPN and the V Foundation have announced that all donations today will benefit the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Fund.
— Kevin Steins (@Steins_) July 15, 2015
There are some wonderful moments to come at the 2015 ESPYs for sure, with Devon Still accepting an award for his wonderful daughter Leah, and the family of Lauren Hill being honored after all she did for cancer research before her passing.
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) July 14, 2015
With Caitlin Jenner being given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, ESPN and ABC have orchestrated the perfect cross between sports and popular culture. The perfect ESPY moment…and I can’t be the only one who wishes today I had thought of it first.
Will Jenner’s moment be remembered like Valvano’s? Probably not, but ABC and ESPN have gotten more run for this decision—and will get more response to the event tonight—than any other event they could have televised all year.
Jenner’s moment on ABC than will be huge for ESPN. Bigger than LeBron holding up a trophy, perhaps, which ESPN can fix tonight if they don’t give the trophy to a horse instead (the horse is a shoo-in).
The ESPYs have never really been about sports, and they’ve almost always been entirely about ESPN—the most memorable moments have included Valvano, Scott and even Robin Roberts who won the Ashe Award after her fight with cancer in 2013, all of who worked for ESPN and ABC—but in a way, the ESPYs are perfect for what they are, as much as what they’re not.
Sports fans don’t care about the ESPYs. Sports media in and out of ESPN despise them. But darn it if we all didn’t wish we came up with the idea first. In a way, they’re perfect for what they are, and for what ESPN has become.