One of the loudest criticisms of ESPN is that its aggressively mainstream approach creates a sycophantic celebrity culture built around the biggest stars and juiciest plots, from the agonies of the L.A. Lakers, to the scandals of Tiger Woods, to the postmodern dramedy of Tim Tebow. But according to Elberse, the company’s superstar culture is the best strategy for a fat-headed world.
“It’s not different from People realizing that there are only five celebrities who really sell [magazines], so why put anyone else on the cover?” she said. “It’s Hollywood making more movies with Marvel characters. It reduced the risk, and it works.” The company’s core strengths stem from a superstar-first approach to sports news. Essentially, ESPN is in the business of building athletes into superheroes, because, like Walt Disney Pictures, it is in the business of building blockbusters.
It’s easy to forget that ESPN started to dwindle a bit in the late 1990s/early 2000s when they started to delve more heavily into niche sports and “sports”. Their audience, as it turns out, didn’t want the long-tail, they wanted the “fat-head”. The focus on that has made ESPN the seemingly unstoppable powerhouse it is today.