Commentary: ESPN gives the cold shoulder to the Olympics

Commentary: ESPN gives the cold shoulder to the Olympics
The 2014 Winter Olympic flame burns at the Olympic Park, in Sochi, Russia, on Wednesday. ESPN hasn't been showing many highlights from the Winter Olympics. (Damien Meyer / AFP/Getty Images)

ESPN bills itself as the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Based on that, women's basketball is bigger worldwide than the Winter Olympics.

Nothing against the Connecticut Huskies, but do they really warrant more airtime than Bode Miller, the U.S. women's hockey team, 3,000 Olympians from 88 countries and Bob Costas' valiant battle with pinkeye?


If a Martian just landed anywhere in America that has cable, it would sure think so. Then it would fly to Sochi to have dinner with Jeremy Schaap, who must be feeling pretty lonely.

Schaap is the Worldwide Leader's intrepid correspondent in Sochi. Before we detail how scrawny the coverage is, it should be noted that ESPN has its reasons.

NBC owns broadcast rights, and rules prohibit competing networks from showing video until 24 hours after the prime-time show ends. Also, Olympic officials say 3 billion people worldwide watched the opening ceremony. Why should ESPN goose NBC's ratings?

Then again, ESPN doesn't broadcast the Super Bowl and it goes on war footing at the mere mention of the letters N, F or L. Which leads us to this past Sunday at 3 p.m. PST. The Olympics were in full swing, so I taped 24 straight hours of ESPN in an attempt to answer the age-old question:

If a biathlete falls in the forest and Mel Kiper Jr. doesn't announce it, does it make a sound?

"With the restrictions in place, we are limited, but we strive to do as much as we can with the access we have," said David Scott, an ESPN spokesman. "Jeremy's hourly updates on 'SportsCenter' are thorough and deliver the pertinent news of the day."

OK, here are some news totals. Women's basketball came in at about 30 minutes over 24 hours. In that same time, ESPN devoted 25:05 to the Olympics. That's about 1.7% of a day for the biggest sporting event not involving a soccer ball. There were a couple of extenuating circumstances, however. Namely Marcus Smart and Michael Sam.

Smart is the Oklahoma State basketball player who shoved a Texas Tech fan Saturday night. The 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" was devoted to the news conference announcing his three-game suspension.

Then we got a documentary on the 1951 University of San Francisco football team and two hours of drag racing. Up next was the 8 p.m. "SportsCenter." Sam, Missouri's All-American defensive end, had announced he is gay.

"A monumental moment in sports," anchor Steve Levy said.

It was, and ESPN spent the next 14 minutes on it. Then came five minutes on Smart, NBA highlights, a UConn-Louisville women's basketball recap with an interview of Coach Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame-Syracuse women's basketball highlights, five more minutes on Sam, three more on Smart and no Sochi in sight.

Miller had bombed in the downhill that day, so it's not as if there wasn't Winter Olympic news to report. But to be fair, ESPN did show a Taco Bell commercial in which Kevin Love threw giant snowballs at some kids.

Then at 9:43 p.m., Schaap appeared from his Sochi perch. Behind him was the Olympic stadium and flame.


Schaap is a pro, easily capable of finding good stories despite the IOC restrictions. But he's largely reduced to a human wire service, reciting a few results before ESPN scurries back to Kiper-ville. Schaap's report lasted 80 seconds, then came seven minutes on Sam and a six-minute piece on Sam featuring tweets from Tom Arnold and Lance Bass.

The goal was to clear America's confusion over Sam's past and future as the first openly gay NFL player. In the next 17 hours of "SportsCenters," "NFL Live," "NFL Insiders," "Outside the Lines" and "Around the Horn," Sam's announcement was dissected by Kiper, Jerome Bettis, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Clark, Herm Edwards, Bill Polian, Mark Dominic, Antonio Pierce, Andrew Brandt, Todd McShay, Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, Gary Pinkel, a dozen talking heads and two gay columnists.

All of which led to "Pardon the Interruption," on which Michael Wilbon said, "I don't know what effect it will have on his NFL career."

Glad we cleared that up.

The grand 24-hour total: 509 minutes on Sam, 186 on Smart, a cup of coffee on the Olympics.

The thing is, as monumental as Sam's story was, that's not why Sochi might as well be Chernobyl to ESPN. If it wasn't Sam, the network would have loaded up on LeBron vs. Durant, the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, spring training or the latest NFL mock draft.

You can see why a Martian would be confused.

The whole world watches the Olympics. But if they fell in a Russian forest, you'd barely hear it on the Worldwide Leader.