Erin Andrews to Fox

Erin Andrews / US PRESSWIRE

Erin Andrews recently left ESPN for Fox Sports, where she’ll host a 30-minute college football pre-game show in addition to other duties. This move barely registered with most college football fans—who care about the product, not the presenters—but the sports media treated it as a headline story. One columnist took the opportunity to bash Andrews as a horrible role model for women in sports media. Others saw this as further evidence of a devastating talent “exodus” at ESPN, following the departures of other media-celebrities like Jim Rome and Michelle Beadle.

Andrews gained notoriety as a sideline reporter, the person charged with the critical responsibility of asking our nation’s top football coaches what adjustments they plan to make at halftime. According to legend, the first sideline reporter was Jim Lampley, better known today as a boxing announcer, who filled the role for ABC at a 1974 Tennessee game. Lampley told Deadspin in 2009 that they should just do away with the sideline reporter role entirely:

All the injury-related information, all the other sideline stuff, you can do that just by having somebody on the sideline who’s not on the air, reporting directly to the truck. I just don’t see what it adds. Unless I felt my viewership was going to go up because somebody was really good-looking, so dramatically, amazingly, dynamically good-looking. But that doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

The continued presence of attractive sideline reporters like Andrews is not based on any proof of increased viewership. Rather, it’s a reflection of the sports media’s introverted culture, one that actually separates it from the consumer market it purports to serve. When we talk about sports, we’re really talking about these two distinct markets—the consumer and the professional.

I first explored this concept in 2009 after scandal enveloped Tiger Woods. The sports media, which spent the past decade hyping him to lengths unseen since Michael Jordan, suddenly and furiously turned on him. This was not, I observed at the time, a case of giving the public what it really wanted:

When the Woods story exploded, two of ESPN’s highest paid pundits, Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly, moved quickly to maintain the hype level. Simmons proclaimed Woods’ exploits the “story of the decade,” with just days to spare. Reilly – who was lured from his lofty columnist’s perch at Sports Illustrated with a two million dollar per year contract – went on multiple ESPN outlets to lecture Woods about his moral failings and offered detailed instructions on how one of the world’s most successful men could rehabilitate his standing in the media’s (er, public’s) eye. The first thing Reilly demanded was that Woods stop playing golf.

Now, given a choice, consumers would overwhelmingly choose to see Woods play golf over watching Reilly pontificate on ESPN. But as we’ve seen, the professional and consumer markets value different things. Reilly isn’t paid two million dollars to satisfy consumers; he’s paid to provide hype-and-cover for other professional journalists who want to talk ad nauseam about the Woods scandal.

The professional market produces content for its own consumption. That’s become even more apparent since 2009 with the proliferation of staged debate programs featuring know-nothing pundits like Skip Bayless. The objective is to generate controversy that in turn increases mentions on social media, which reaffirms the social status of the network as an important arbiter of “public” opinion. None of this serves the sports consumer; it’s all for the benefit of other sports media outlets.

This is why ESPN can let an established on-air talent like Andrews leave without thinking twice. Talent is an interchangeable commodity. ESPN can generate new stars and new controversies to service the professional market—so long as it retains the strong support of the consumer market. And the consumer market only cares about the actual sports product, the games themselves.

Consider Andrews’s new home at Fox Sports. Hiring her to host the network’s college pregame show is a typical move aimed at the professional market. Other outlets will write about her presence as if it were the principal story. But Fox Sports’s success or failure still depends on the quality of its football product, in this case the Pac-12. Having “name” talent will only take you so far.

Fox should know this already given their success with the NFL. It may be underplayed now, but Fox’s acquisition of the rights to NFC games in the early 1990s was a watershed event. It saved the NFL from economic stagnation. Fox significantly outbid CBS, the previous rights-holder, flooding the NFL with new cash that helped fuel a new stadium building boom.

One of Fox’s first moves was to hire away the lead CBS broadcast team of Pat Summerall and John Madden. This helped the upstart network with the professional market, which obsesses over announcers. But what made Fox a hit with viewers was the subsequent improvements to the broadcast itself, including many features that are now industry standards—a continuous display of the game clock, the yellow first-down line, etc.

Real innovation and consumer focus come from the people you don’t see on the screen. On-air talent has in fact never been less relevant to the consumer. Most folks agree with Jim Lampley that sideline reporters are unnecessary. But the same is true of color analysts and studio “pundits.” Twitter provides fans with far more raucous and entertaining real-time game commentary than any ex-player. And the ubiquity of online video highlights have eliminated the studio show’s reason for being.

Yet ESPN and other broadcasters continue to cram more and more of these analysts into the picture. This, again, is about the distinction between the professional and consumer markets. The professional market sees a big set with half a dozen ex-players and coaches as a sign of how “important” the pre-game show is. It’s programming executives justifying their budgets to themselves.

College football has never needed network hoopla to be successful in the consumer market. The product predates the availability of commercial television by nearly 80 years. Television has certainly been good for the game, but it’s important to remember that people root for their schools and players, not announcers and sideline reporters.