Is This the End of Smart Sports Commentary?
The cancellation of ESPN’s smartest television show, “High Noon,” is just the most recent example of a shift away from nuanced discussions about the intersection of sports, politics, race and culture.
March 2, 2020
Last week, ESPN announced that it was canceling “High Noon,” a studio talk show featuring two of ESPN’s smartest commentators, after less than two years.
The company cited low viewership for the decision — the show averaged 330,000 viewers in the first quarter of this year, down 3% from last year’s numbers, according to Sports Business Journal. The show’s final episode will air at the end of the month.
Hosted by sports journalists Bomani Jones and Pablo S. Torre, “High Noon” tackled social issues and sports in a way that was nuanced and unapologetic. Amid the NBA vs. China debacle, Torre suggested that the NBA imported authoritarianism into the U.S. rather than exporting democracy to China. When it came to the rise of analytics in the NBA, Jones sharply noted how the racist stereotypes in the STEM and business fields have breached teams and their front offices.
ESPN has a litany of shows like “Get Up!,” “First Take” and “The Jump” that all discuss the same news to death and regurgitate the same hot takes. At a certain point, they’re just not hot anymore.
Sports television has always thrived using a debate-like format, but it’s often the kind of debate that involves grown men yelling over each other about the greatest basketball player of all time. Jones, who has two masters in economics, and Torre, a Harvard graduate, attempted to break that mold with more thoughtful commentary and longer discussions that allow for more than just a viral sound byte. The show wasn’t perfect — sometimes it, too, fell into the trap of entertaining the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate.
“High Noon” has also put two young men of color front and center and gave them a platform that they very much deserve. It is so rare that we are able to watch a Black man and a Filipino man on national television talk about the intersection of sports and culture, and it is why losing “High Noon” is another blemish on ESPN’s record.
In recent months, we’ve seen ESPN’s priorities on full display. The network just gave “First Take” personality and supreme talking head Stephen A. Smith a new deal worth $8 million and splashed more cash to give House of Highlights founder Omar Raja the keys to its digital and social platforms. SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship show which focuses on highlight-worthy plays, has been expanded, while the network’s hard news program, “Outside the Lines,” was demoted from a daily 30-minute program to a one-hour weekly show.
“High Noon” was originally one hour long, and shown at noon Eastern time. The show was then moved down to 4 p.m. and cut to 30 minutes. On Mondays, it airs on ESPN2 instead of ESPN to make room for more SportsCenter content. According to data from showbuzzdaily.com, an average of 136,000 people watched “High Noon” (4 p.m.) in February compared to 160,000 for “Highly Questionable” (4:30 p.m.), 225,000 for “Around the Horn” (5 p.m.), 347,000 for “First Take” (10 a.m.) and 262,000 for “SportsCenter” (noon).
Before “High Noon” ever hit the air in 2018, Jones was quoted in a piece by The Ringer saying, “If the first thing they say about our TV show is how smart it is, we’re all going to get fired.”
I hope that someday, being a “smart” TV show doesn’t mean that you won’t be around for long.
At the end of the day, “High Noon” brought value to the network. I’m afraid some people wish that sports existed in a vacuum free of the social and political issues that are pervasive in society. That’s simply not true and Jones and Torre know it. It remains to be seen where Jones and Torre’s talents will take them next, but I hope that they are given more opportunities to push boundaries and continue the important conversations they started at ESPN.
The Sports Girl is a weekly column that features a girl’s take on sports. Yes, a girl. Yes, on sports.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Mar. 2, 2020, print edition. Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]