ESPN has bias for ratings, not East Coast

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Last night someone told me, “I’m sick of the Yankees and Red Sox. They’re always on TV.” He then pulled out the East Coast bias card, saying the Midwest and West Coast do not get their proper respect.

We talked primarily about baseball, this being playoffs season and he being a disgruntled Cubs fan. He said all he sees are Yankees and Red Sox games. I said that’s because ESPN is more worried about ratings than judiciously spreading its Sunday Night Baseball Games among all 30 teams. “That’s not fair,” he said. But that’s just smart business for a company trying to make money. Newspapers make these decisions all the time, which is why regional newspapers cover their local teams more than national teams. That sells papers.

Don’t mistake entertainment for journalism. Like other networks, ESPN wants to make money. Networks spend a great deal of money to get broadcast rights, so they want to earn that money back. That’s why you did not see the small-market Devil Rays and Royals play. Ratings would be abysmal, something advertisers would not like.

There’s not doubt there is a certain degree of East Coast bias in some coverage, in part because a higher percentage of people live there and in part because of the time difference. East Coast viewers are not as willing to stay up late to watch 10 p.m. baseball, football, and basketball games. But, clearly, teams like Southern Cal (in football) and the Los Angeles Dodgers get respect when they succeed (although not as much, perhaps, as if they played East.)

But let’s look at one small aspect of this bias argument. I decided to check ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball schedule from this past season to see if these claims are true. Not surprisingly, the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were among the teams who appeared the most. But they trailed the Cardinals, who appeared six times. The Tigers and Braves, though, matched the five appearances by the Yankees and Mets. The Red Sox appeared just as frequently as the Cubs (four times), followed by the Angels and Phillies at three apiece. The Dodgers, Twins, Indians and Rangers each appeared twice, while the Padres, Giants and Astros appeared once.

West Coast teams like the Mariners and A’s never appeared, but nor did the Orioles, Devil Rays or Nationals. The Rockies and Diamondbacks were also shut out from Sunday Night Baseball, but so were the Pirates, White Sox, Reds, and Marlins. In most instances, this is because the teams played poorly. But you can also see that many of these teams play in smaller markets, something that affects Major League Baseball teams that do not have the resources to compete with big-market teams. Major League Baseball does not share revenue, unlike the National Football League, where the tiny market Packers can compete much easier with the Giants, Bears and Cowboys.

I’m not sure whether ESPN, or any other sports media, has a bias toward a coast. You can bet Duke-North Carolina basketball games will always be shown nationally, as will Southern Cal-UCLA in football, and the Yankees-Red Sox in baseball. These teams have national profiles and storied histories, meaning viewers are more inclined to watch them play. That’s not journalism; that’s just smart business.

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