It was hard not to notice WWE's increased presence on more mainstream media outlets in the build to WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, California.
ESPN's Grantland site has been covering pro graps since its inception with The Masked Man's work, and Rolling Stone has become a regular player over the last year or so thanks to Kenny Herzog. But in the build to the Granddaddy of Them All, WWE was all over ESPN proper, starting with Bill Simmons on Raw through the Brock Lesnar contract announcement with Michelle Beadle on through SportsCenter reporting on Seth Rollins' WWE championship victory on Sunday night.
And that's getting different reactions from many in the sports journalism game.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitch, in an interesting piece that reported on how the bevy of sports entertainment material ended up on Disney-owned ESPN the last week in March, comes out 100% in favor of major sports media entities including WWE in their coverage:
...this was a very smart business play for ESPN -- and one I'd recommend other sports outlets of all mediums follow more regularly...outlets (and I include SI here) would be wise to cater to WWE fans when appropriate given its demos. The RAW episode that aired following WrestleMania drew 5.4 million total viewers including 2.4 million adults 18-49 and 2.4 million adults 25-54. (The average SportsCenter gets under a million.) The WWE audience is also very active on social media. Website editors and writers will tell you that wrestling content on sports sites draw a ton of page views. The interest exists.
Using ESPN as an example, the network often brings in entertainers and musicians to do its circuit of radio shows and debate TV. They've even given some actors (Ken Jeong) an actual gig on SportsCenter. How great would it be to see Heyman do a regular spot on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike? (You know Mike Greenberg would call him "The Great Paul Heyman") or Daniel Bryan doing a regular gig for Fox Sports Live (which would be a lot more entertaining than some of the athletes there). As someone who enjoys the WWE, I hope this intersection grows. As someone who writes about sports media, I think the mainstream outlets that push this connection are going to get rewarded.
Deitch concedes that "smart people" think wrestling is ridiculous, and does draw the line at treating it the same as unscripted competitions without predetermined outcomes. But that's not enough for some, including Michael Bradley of Indiana University's Sports Media Program, the National Sports Journalism Center:
Forging alliances with legitimate leagues is one thing. Trying to build an audience by making something that isn't real sport seem more legitimate is far more cynical and potentially explosive. First comes the WWE. Then come full highlights of the Globetrotters' next game. After all, that team has fans all around the world.
...it isn't good journalism. Viewers, readers and users already have enough trouble discerning what's real news and what is promotional content, especially with ESPN, the master of blending the two into a self-aggrandizing stew. Giving WWE more than an occasional nod would be extremely risky, since the process would confer legitimacy on something that is clearly a show. What would come next, breakdowns of the previous night's prime-time lineup? Coverage of the results of a movie's sports storyline?
ESPN and others media members should make sure this flirtation with the WWE was a one-time event and resist the temptation to partner further with pro wrestling in order to increase audience share. It's fun to talk about Lesnar and his fellow rasslers, but it's not journalism.
And nobody should pretend it is.
While my gut reaction is as a wrestling fan who wants to immediately side with Deitch - in a perfect world, there would be a divide between real sports journalism and sports entertainment. The issue is that that perfect world doesn't even exist so that networks partnering with major sports leagues can deal with real world topics that effect our pastimes like the corporatization of college athletics or head injuries in football & soccer without worrying they're going to lose the next broadcast contract.
Spending a few minutes on WWE seems low on the list of concerns a media watchdog should have in the 21st century. And just the latest example of "smart people" picking on "rassling" because it somehow offends them.
What do you think, fellow rassling fans? Is WWE and wrestling playing in the sports news sandbox just smart business, or potentially dangerous?