Scott D. Pierce: ‘SportsCenter’ bias has been all about geography
TV • ESPN isn’t anti-anything — it’s pro-big ratings for its programming.
Published: October 23, 2012 06:35PM
Updated: October 25, 2012 04:26PM
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Scott D. Pierce

For years, sports fans in Utah have complained that their teams were under-represented on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

It was a common complaint from both BYU and Utah fans back in the Mountain West Conference days. It’s a complaint NHL fans continue to make today.

And it’s a complaint “SportsCenter” executive producer Mark Gross rejects.

“There’s no preferential treatment,” he said, although he acknowledged “the topic has been out there for years.”

“There’s nothing that goes on at this company that says don’t show this or show less of this because we don’t have the rights to it,” he insisted. “That does not exist here. It has never existed. And it won’t exist here.”

And he has plenty of examples to back him up. ESPN totally gets into March Madness even though it doesn’t carry any NCAA men’s tournament games.

Looking back, “College GameDay” came to both Rice-Eccles Stadium and LaVell Edwards Stadium for games it didn’t telecast. And ESPN was entirely caught up in Jimmer-mania, even though it didn’t have any broadcast rights to BYU basketball.

It’s true that Utah has gotten more attention from “SportsCenter” (at least during football season) since joining the Pac-12, but there are two reasons for that. First, the Pac-12 is a more relevant league than the MWC. And second, the Pac-12 operates in much bigger population centers than the MWC.

That’s the big one. This isn’t just about sports, it’s about TV.

That’s why we can’t be surprised that a 6-2 Utah State team from little ol’ Logan isn’t getting a whole lot of love. Even though the WAC does have a deal with ESPN.

That’s why the NHL gets less coverage than the NFL or NBA. Hockey doesn’t drive ratings.

You could argue that BYU is getting more attention from ESPN since it signed a deal with the network. But on “SportsCenter,” that attention has come when BYU is either (a) the only game on a Thursday or Friday, or (b) playing a big-name opponent. And independent BYU was pretty much left out of ESPN’s preseason football coverage, which focused on leagues.

Watching “SportsCenter,” it’s clear there is a long history of bias. But it hasn’t been so much anti-anything as it’s been pro-East Coast/Midwest. Which isn’t surprising for a network based in Connecticut.

I’m a native New Yorker, and when I was growing up there, West Coast teams were looked down upon. And teams in the Mountain time zone were basically off the radar.

But ESPN has come a long way to overcome that. That’s why there’s an 11 p.m. MT edition of “SportsCenter” that originates in Los Angeles and airs in prime time on the West Coast. That’s why ESPN airs 8-ish p.m. MT college football, including umpteen BYU games and the Utah-Oregon State matchup. Yes, that’s late-night on the East Coast, but it’s prime time on the West Coast.

Of course, you’re never going to make everyone happy.

“It sounds corny, but it is the truth. We’re just out there trying to serve sports fans,” Gross said. “And we can’t do everything for everybody, as much as we would like to. So there’s certain things that just don’t make the show on any given night.”

These days, BYU and Utah fans might wish their teams got a little less attention on the show, given how this season has gone for both the Utes and the Cougars.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.