The ESPN NBA front page on July 7, 2024 about Bronny James, and the ESPN overall frontpage on Feb. 27, 2017 about Tim Tebow. The ESPN NBA front page on July 7, 2024 about Bronny James, and the ESPN overall frontpage on Feb. 27, 2017 about Tim Tebow.

One of the areas in sports that draws the most comment is when a media organization’s coverage of an athlete seems outsized relative to that athlete’s on-field impact. This was seen for many years with Tim Tebow in particular, through his NFL career and (especially) his minor-league baseball career. But it’s come up with many others as well since then, and the latest example there is with the way ESPN covered Bronny James’ Summer League debut Saturday afternoon:

Here’s some of the criticism that’s taken:

On Sunday morning, almost a day after that game, the ESPN front page had moved on to coverage of Wimbledon and other sports. But the NBA page had not:

And that’s taken its own criticism. Here’s some of that:

There are some interesting points in there. The repeated Kardashian references are notable, and there’s a discussion to be had there about celebrity. There’s certainly interest in the lives of celebrities, as they and others have shown.

But there can be blowback when that crosses into sports. There’s definitely been some of that around TV shots of Taylor Swift at NFL games featuring her boyfriend Travis Kelce, with the outrage there sometimes taking significantly more time than the actual shots of Swift. And there are particular problems when celebrity-style coverage focuses on an athlete rather than a celebrity in another field, as athletes have quantifiable accomplishments in the field in question that can be compared to the attention they’re getting.

This was the central problem with ESPN’s obsession with Tebow. Some have claimed that was more about Skip Bayless than anyone else, but there are counterpoints to that. And while the coverage of Tebow during and after his first NFL stint was often excessive, this was even more noticeable around Tebow’s attempt to play professional baseball (while still working as an ESPN analyst), which came following Bayless’ departure for FS1.

There, Tebow undisputedly drew attention to the spring training and minor-league games he took part in, with ticket sales there surging. And ESPN’s celebrity-style coverage of him, including dot com frontpages like the one at the top right, certainly had an audience. But that coverage proved highly annoying to many who wanted actual sports discussion, as it was pretty clear that Tebow’s baseball efforts weren’t likely to have a significant on-field impact at the major league level. Indeed, the perfect encapsulation of that story was what then-Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson said at a 2017 Society for American Baseball Research panel:

Tebow held a showcase that most teams sent scouts to last September. The Mets signed him the following week. However, Alderson said, “The guy we sent to see him in California did not exactly send back a glowing report. I knew immediately he would not want his name as the signing scout.

“Ultimately,’’ he added, “the guy that we put down was the director of merchandising.”

Alderson shared what he called “an inside joke” while participating in a panel at Citi Field for the 47th annual SABR convention Friday. The 500-plus attendees roared with laughter.

When Tebow was signed, Alderson called it “a baseball decision,” but he now is giving a bigger-picture explanation. After saying that every report on Tebow indicates he is a “gold-standard individual,” he added, “Look, we signed him because he is a good guy, partly because of his celebrity, partly because this is an entertainment business. My attitude is ‘why not?’ ”

The honesty there is appreciated. While that decision can be debated (is it fine for a professional team to sign someone “partly because of his celebrity, partly because this is an entertainment business” and reap the marketing rewards, or is that counter to their mission of winning games and unfair to a person who might get that slot on merit alone, or is this not a big deal considering how many things in sports over the years have been about connections and/or entertainment?), it’s good to at least have the reason for it acknowledged so that the discussion can have a solid basis. But a further challenge comes when media outlets approach something like that as a straight sports story rather than a celebrity/entertainment/marketing one.

And that’s what’s going on with Bronny James right now. And while it’s not just at ESPN (countless media outlets covered James’ first Summer League game), the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader tends to not only go in on stories like this more than anyone else, but to have their coverage more noticed than anyone else. Their original name was also the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (they dropped that in 1985 for “ESPN Inc.), and they do tend to focus on the “entertainment” side than many others.

As we’ve written many times over the years, this is particularly true on ESPN’s debate shows. Those are very self-admittedly not about the biggest stories in sports, but what their data suggests viewers want to see First Take and Get Up personalities argue about. (And count on that including a lot of Bronny James this week; it certainly already did around the draft.) But it’s not just the debate shows; these kinds of focuses also show up on shows like SportsCenter, and on ESPN’s website, and on their social media accounts.

However, that kind of celebrity focus comes in at least partial contrast to ESPN’s oft-referenced mission of “Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.” (That’s even in the full title of, and is visible on that page.) Yes, they’re certainly currently serving the fans who are interested in exhaustive coverage of Bronny James. And those fans do exist. But they’re not the only fans.

What gets missed in some of these celebrity stories around sports is that they do actively alienate some others who want the emphasis on the on-court product. That’s why it’s important to find balance and limit that celebrity coverage. NFL game directors have done that with shots of Swift, and while the amount she’s shown still annoys some, it’s certainly not a wall-to-wall focus in games or after games.

In slight defense of ESPN’s headlining, many fewer people are likely to search out or read a story about Adonis Arms’ 32-point, 11-rebound performance in the Kings’ victory in this game. And that’s understandable: not as many people know who he is. And even with his much greater tangible on-court impact here, there have been lots of big Summer League performances in the past that didn’t mean much in the long run. So it’s understandable why ESPN did go with a Bronny James focus (as did most of the media organizations who covered this). But the degree ESPN took that here did turn off many.

There have been countless cases beyond Tebow of ESPN (and, usually, the media at large to at least some extent) covering a player particularly intensely, from Linsanity through Kelce through Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. But the difference in the non-Tebow cases is that the player in question has had a large on-field impact there as well. (And even Tebow did have that to some degree while he was the Denver Broncos starting quarterback, although his effectiveness there depends on if you care about stats or QB wins; the coverage of him really got outsized in proportion to his on-field impact after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded him away.) And Bronny James did not have that impact in college (see a past absurd Pac-12 Networks graphic there), and didn’t have it in his Summer League debut, and there isn’t much to suggest he’ll have a notable NBA impact in the near future. So the coverage of him right now is largely not about on-court impact, and that’s what bothers a lot of sports fans.

Where the Bronny James coverage does have some merit from an on-court perspective is when it comes to his father LeBron. Even at 39 (he’ll be 40 in December), the elder James is still an on-court force, averaging 25.7 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds in 35.3 minutes per game this past season. Where he plays matters. Leading up to the draft, there was a lot of discussion of how he wanted to play with his son.

While it was relatively telegraphed that the Lakers would indeed draft Bronny in the second round, that no one else would do that before them, and that LeBron would stay with the team, none of that was 100 percent certain. So even mockable coverage decisions, such as The Associated Press leading their entire coverage of June 26 in sports with “Bronny James not picked in Round 1 of NBA draft,” were of something with a possible significant on-court effect: if another team had drafted Bronny, would LeBron have gone there?

But with the Lakers picking Bronny, and with LeBron signing a new deal there (on different contract terms after opting out), most of the potential on-court drama and impact to this story vanished. Yes, there’s still some potential discussion of minor on-court impacts: will Bronny make the actual roster and play in a regular-season game or games? How will LeBron respond to playing with his son? But the on-court angles here are largely marginal, making this more of a celebrity story.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrity stories in sports. Bronny James will quite likely bring a larger audience to ESPN’s Summer League TV coverage, and stories on him will certainly draw attention and clicks. But where this can go awry and rankle other sports fans is when the “marketing” side enters a realm that’s supposed to be about on-court performance, and when the incentives aren’t clearly understood.

This was a point missed by many in discussion of Clark being left off the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team. There, “marketing” arguments were made to counter a decision that did not consider marketing in its criteria (and was not incentivized to). Now, the incentives for a media outlet like ESPN are a little different than those for a team; there’s nothing specifically compelling them to cover or not cover anything in a particular way, so they can work in marketing and celebrity as much or as little as they want. But they do have incentive to appeal to, or at least not fully turn off, fans who want on-court focused coverage as well.

And that’s going to be the key point to watch going forward. Of course ESPN is going to cover Bronny. And that coverage is going to appeal to some. But the degree to which they cover him is going to be interesting. With many of ESPN’s focuses over the years, there’s been a notable associated on-court or on-field impact. The Tebow baseball situation, and the criticism they took for their approach to it, stands out for how far their coverage got away from the actual sport, and for the people that alienated. And the early returns on the Bronny coverage suggest there’s a possibility of something similar happening again here.

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.