“The Worldwide Leader In Wrestling News?” While ESPN’s unlikely to top WWE itself for wrestling coverage, the network has substantially increased its WWE coverage recently, and they’re covering professional wrestling much more often and much more seriously than their competitors. That’s going to continue around Sunday’s Wrestlemania, where ESPN’s Jonathan Coachman (a former WWE announcer) will be doing both pre-taped segments for and live cut-ins to SportsCenter from Arlington’s AT&T Stadium all day. Coachman announced this in an appearance on WWE RAW Monday:

Coachman also did separate SportsCenter exclusive interviews with Triple H and Shane McMahon this week ahead of McMahon’s Wrestlemania main event Hell In a Cell match against The Undertaker. So, this is something that ESPN is playing up substantially, which fits with their recent trend towards WWE recaps and news on SportsCenter. Why are they doing that, given that WWE’s so much more towards “Entertainment” than what’s usually covered on the network initially called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network ? Well, ESPN executive Glenn Jacobs (presumably not the wrestler known as Kane!) gave SI’s Richard Deitsch the rundown on the network’s shift towards wrestling coverage Sunday, andhe says it’s audience-driven:

Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s New & Next Group (a 25-30-person group that focuses on new content plays for the company), said his staff has spent a lot of time researching what ESPN viewers are paying attention to on social media. They found that ESPN viewers are very interested in WWE content.

For example: Last Monday’s WWE Raw, which airs on USA Network, was the most-talked about topic among SportsCenter’s nearly 26 million Twitter followers (The ESPN researchers look at hashtags and key words). WWE content, in fact, drew three times as many as mentions as the second-most talked about topic that night​: LeBron James. Jacobs said WWE Raw has been a top five talked-about topic over the last five weeks among SportsCenter followers on Twitter and a top 10 topic for 15 straight weeks.

“We are seeing a really strong and clear correlation between wrestling and those followers, and that helps make the argument all the more clear that this is something our fans care about,” Jacobs said. “So why should we not try to serve them? Data takes it out of the theoretical and into reality.”

…Jacobs said last year he, Coachman, social media producer Steve Braband, and SportsCenterproducer Ashok Moore pitched SportsCenterchiefs Rob King and Mike McQuade on ways to intersect ESPN and the WWE. Management agreed to give it a shot, and Jacobs said the results have been good so far. He cited an interview Coachman did with Daniel Bryan upon Bryan’s retirement that drew 396,000 video starts. Another interview with Roman Reigns accumulated 120,000 video starts. Jacobs said ESPN would pick it spots over the calendar year to feature WWE content.

“First and most obviously, there are millions of wrestling fans and a lot of them are also sports fans, so why not capture as much as the audience as we can?” Jacobs said. “We experimented last year by sending Coachman and a small team to [WWE’s] Summer Slam and it was well received. I would also add that Brock Lesnar’s cross-over success as an athlete in the UFC also helped.”

This hasn’t been uniformly well-received, though. One critic is former SportsCenter host and current NBC/NBCSN/Audience presence Dan Patrick, who opined on his show Tuesday that WWE fans are “being used” to boost SportsCenter’s flagging ratings:

Radio host Dan Patrick said he understands why ESPN is increasing its WWE coverage, as it is “pretty transparent … people aren’t watching ‘SportsCenter’ the way they once did.” However, Patrick said WWE fans are “being used.” Patrick: “It’s not like they care about the sport. They care about you the audience that they can now fill up ‘SportsCenter’ with. You can get better ratings there.”

Here’s Patrick’s full segment on that and the larger issue of networks covering wrestling:

There’s some great stuff in there, including Patrick’s questioning of why ESPN covered Brock Lesnar’s role in WWE but not the real-world implications of the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker Media trial. “That was real! 140 million dollars real!” He goes on to say he doesn’t like ESPN’s wrestling coverage, but understands why they’re doing it:

“I don’t like them doing this, but they’re desperate to get people to watch SportsCenter. They’ve watered down SportsCenter, it’s not special any more. Now, they’re trying to make it special. If you can get people in that demographic to watch SportsCenter, maybe they stay around for the other sports. I get it; there are a lot of smart people there. They’re looking for a younger audience there, because the older audience grew up with a different SportsCenter. The younger one? They like bite-sized portions, ‘I can get my sports any time I want, I don’t have to wait until 11 o’clock.”

As per Deitsch’s column, he goes on to opine that other outlets should follow ESPN’s lead, but he also writes that none of ESPN’s broadcast competitors really seem that interested in wrestling at the moment:

Outlets (and I include SI here) would be wise to cater to WWE fans when appropriate given its demos. Website editors and writers will tell you that wrestling content on sports sites draws a ton of page views. There’s no doubt that some ESPN viewers will be unhappy seeing WWE programming on SportsCenter—no, it’s not a sport—but the idea that SportsCenter is sacrosanct regarding sports-only is long gone. The show often has actors and musicians hyping product, cross-promotion with Disney entities, lists of non-note from its anchors, and various personalities screaming about something.

…It’s worth noting that ESPN is on a bit of an island regarding cable sports networks and the WWE. NBCSN said it had no coverage plans, which makes sense given most of its studio shows such as Premier League Live, NHL Live, and NASCAR America are sport-specific. CBS Sports has often covered WWE online but has never done so on CBS Sports Network. Fox did not return a query on this topic but FS1 would seem to be a perfect place to experiment with the WWE, as it has given extensive coverage to wrestling digitally. Of course, Fox is a partner with UFC, so perhaps UFC wants it to stay away.

So, while plenty of online outlets (including this site and The Comeback) are covering wrestling extensively, ESPN seems to be the only U.S. sports TV network really dipping its feet in those waters at the moment. The other networks’ reasons to decline make some sense, too; online wrestling coverage is one thing, as any particular article is opt-in (most people don’t read everything one particular site publishes, and it’s easy to ignore something you don’t care about), whereas TV is not. Devoting SportsCenter segments to WWE may please wrestling fans, but it may annoy those who tune into SportsCenter for coverage of other sports. We’ll see if this tradeoff works out for ESPN, and if other networks follow suit.

[Sports Business Journal]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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