The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the biggest brands in United States sports. The Dallas Cowboys and their iconic star share a similar pedestal—sustained success over the past few decades has created a lasting luster for both organizations. By and large, though, the majority of popular sports teams lie in our vicinity. When it comes to sports, the East Coast rules.
Turn on SportsCenter on any given night and that East Coast bias becomes immediately evident. ESPN has improved its coverage on West Coast teams over the past few years, in conjunction with some new offices in Los Angeles. The network has even taken things to the next level and moved some of its shows to a set in LA. Even with the setting change, though, the focus remained on the same few Eastern powers.
During baseball season, if a Yankee or Red Sox player so much as breaks a nail during batting practice, it will get more coverage than an extra inning affair between the Padres and Diamondbacks. For those living three hours over, it is certainly an annoyance, and probably seems unfair on the surface.
But ESPN, like any other network, relies on high ratings to sustain a successful product. Yes, that’s why we saw around-the-clock coverage of Tim Tebow’s every waking move last season. He won games in dramatic fashion, created controversy with his strong Christian faith and meme-able moves, and sparked endless debate because he was just never all that talented.
Despite the polarizing split between Tebow worshippers and Tebow haters, any coverage got ESPN the highest ratings imaginable. Even if I griped about the continued coverage, I found myself tuning in anyway. Stories like Tebow’s and persisting rumors like the yearlong Dwight Howard trade saga capture far too much time on the airwaves.
Aside from those rare anomalies, at the end of the day, success is the big equalizer for this bias. Perhaps the smallest market in the NBA, Oklahoma City, features the best young team the league has seen in a couple of decades. It makes sense, then, that Kevin Durant and company garner plenty of national media attention despite Oklahoma’s relative obscurity on the professional sports scene (the Sooners and Cowboys help them stay relevant otherwise).
With a sustained level of success, the Packers have established a national brand name similar to the Cowboys. Thus, their success means higher ratings—they transcend the small-town Wisconsin market in a way their Milwaukee counterparts the Bucks and Brewers cannot hope to match.
There are some similarities to the Wisconsin predicament and this year’s World Series. While Detroit and San Francisco aren’t small markets, they are separated from the East Coast, highlighting the East Coast bias that exists with sports media. If the Yankees or Red Sox were the American League representative, there would certainly be round-the-clock coverage of A-Rod’s latest night out or Josh Beckett’s last meal at KFC.
Instead, without the moneymaking headlines, we have muddled coverage of actual baseball—great for the true sports fan, but not ideal for ratings. Plenty of people will still tune into the series, especially if it stretches to six or seven games–it is the World Series, after all.
Just taking a look at the past five years, though, shows the East Coast trend to be true. When the Yankees and Phillies faced off in 2009 in a battle of insufferable fanbases, the series averaged 11.7 million viewers per game. Compare that with just 8.4 million the next year when the Giants and Rangers faced off and the difference becomes immediately apparent. Any Yankee series over the past 15 years approaches that 11.7 million number, with most of them flying past, and the same goes for any series involving Boston.
The numbers disparity is clearly evident and isn’t offset by a ridiculously skewed West Coast schedule. Take the World Series for instance—all the games air at 8 p.m. in our time zone, primetime for East Coasters. San Francisco residents three hours in the other direction, on the other hand, probably have to leave work early to catch their beloved Giants play at an absurdly early five p.m. It’s a trend that carries through sports; the heart of college football schedules starts up in the early afternoon on Saturdays, somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m. out West.
There’s no fix to the incongruence. But at the same time, there simply doesn’t need to be one—the East Coast is the epicenter of the sports world on a number of levels; the left coast is just along for the ride.