It’s no longer new or useful to bemoan the ever-burgeoning ESPN empire. They expand, they get money, and simple distaste isn’t going to stop it from growing or you from watching. And yet at the same time, there’s something particularly odious about their willingness to exploit amateur athletes for a tidy profit, and it appears that their latest invention, the National High School Invitational, is no different.
According to the SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL, ESPN’s tourney will take place in the beginning of April, which is convenient. And by convenient I mean a stupid idea, because spring break’s one or two weeks prior, and it’s not like April Fool’s Day is a federal holiday. They seriously couldn’t do this during the summer? Go ahead and try convincing one of these kids that education is still more important than athletics after you let them take off a few days of high school so they can play ball on national television. Try it.
The event will be held by ESPN Rise, a newer arm of the sports conglomerate devoted to youth sports. Said James Brown (not him or him), senior VP of ESPN Rise, “It’s absolutely about further expanding into the high school space.”
Now look, ESPN would be neither the first nor last company to use high school sports to turn a profit. But whereas most do so by providing goods or services (like, say, Riddell), ESPN merely does so by selling the spectacle to advertisers. They’re not taking gate receipts or other local sports revenue, mind you, because that would be enough to send rioters to Bristol.
And lest you think ESPN is showing some restraint by limiting their grasp to high schoolers, well, two points: A) the Little League World Series, which is excessively overhyped and more attention than is healthy for anybody that age. And B) they’re doing it again:
And ESPN Rise isn’t stopping with high school athletes. It also plans to go after athletes ages 10 to 16 with the inaugural ESPN Rise Games next summer in Orlando. The event will be the network’s equivalent of a youth Olympic Games, featuring baseball, lacrosse, basketball, and track and field competition.
Again: this is not healthy. There’s a limit on the amount of hype and attention that should be placed on the shoulders of people who aren’t even old enough to drive, much less vote or live by themselves, and if there are two things ESPN’s business model eschews, it’s limiting hype or attention when it comes to synergistic self-promotion.
And most importantly, this is not the point of youth sports. For the vast, vast majority of children who participate in sports, the idea should never be to get on television or winning at all costs, not if they lose sight of having fun. This seems like one small step for ESPN and one giant leap in the wrong direction.