How Sports Debate Shows Cracked The Social Media Code

How Sports Debate Shows Cracked The Social Media Code

The analysts on ESPN’s First Take and FS1’s Undisputed would easily relate to Billy Murray’s predicament in the 1993 classic Groundhog Day. You wake up, crawl through the same routine, spar around the same topics, reiterate the same arguments and go back to sleep – only to wake up the next day to relive it all over again.

For viewers, however, the experience of watching these debate shows would be more akin to Jessica Rothe’s routine in Happy Death Day, a 2017 film with a similar premise. The main difference here is that the protagonist does not choose to go to sleep, but is rather hunted down and killed every single night. 

Like millions of Americans and Canadians, I too have accumulated countless hours watching such shows over the last several years. If the 10,000-hour rule had any merit, I should have been a sportscaster myself by now.

The primary driver for these wreckless viewing habits is YouTube’s notorious suggestion algorithm. The algorithm, powered by a multi-layered deep neural network, serves to hijack the complacencies of our mind’s System 1 (to borrow from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s classification of the mind’s automated, instinctive and emotional processes). Human beings employ System 1 when we are in auto mode – exerting minimal cognitive energy in tasks that we do routinely or take for granted. It is also the mental model that defines us when we are lazy, emotional, or tired. Apparently, this is also the system most of us employ while voting in general elections.

The Regurgitation Machine

On the surface, each debate show tries its best to stay up to date with the hot topics of the week. This is crucial for television ratings. Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Sure, FS1’s Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless both have plenty to say across multiple iterations of the same topic over the course of the week. 

However, the television producers and media executives behind these debate shows know that time relevant content offers decreasing returns in the most relevant battleground of them all: social media. Sure, television commercials still rake in far bigger cheques than YouTube revenue for any major television brand, but YouTube serves as a crucial reinforcement loop for television viewing habits: you are more likely to tune in to Hannity on Fox News if your friends keep sharing his wacky, hilarious and entertaining takes on climate change (denial). Television shows that have not prioritized their YouTube infrastructure tend to do less impressively in the ratings, particularly amongst the younger crowd. 

The impetus to create ‘evergreen’ content, or in this case, content that can garner clicks well beyond the airing date, plays a significant factor in turning these debates into repetitive exercises that System 2, the part of our mind that generates deliberate, reasoned, and rigorous analysis was it ever given a chance, would immediately condemn and classify as an educational series on logical fallacies i.e. begging the claim, ad hominem and slippery slopes amongst others.

The GOAT Debate

A YouTube search for an enduring topic like “Is Michael Jordan the GOAT?” concatenated with the title of your favorite debate show – and you will see an unending stream of video results on the same subject. The topic of discussion on any given night may range from:

  1. “Is Lebron better than Michael Jordan?”, 
  2. “Is Lebron the Michael Jordan of his era?”
  3. “Will Lebron James ever become the GOAT?”
  4. “How close is Lebron James to being the GOAT?”
  5. “Which NBA superstar can be termed the Greatest?” 
  6. “Was Michael Jordan’s prime as good as Kobe Bryant’s prime?”

The words may differ but the semantics never change: to imagine two seasoned professionals in their field engaging in virtually the same debate every week and pretend they never spoke about it is not just contempt of the viewer’s intelligence, it’s a validation of our surrender.

The Recycling Bin

The above practice of regurgitation holds true for an array of topics. For a moment, let’s take a look at Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman’s First Take in isolation. The general logic, or an overall framework of the show, generally runs like this:

  1. Molly asks a question that has been raised several times before in various forms – for e.g. is Carmelo Anthony’s (let’s call him x so we can see the pattern more clearly) NBA career finished?
  2. Max Kellerman begins by praising x, in a bid not to be seen as a hater, before delving into the analytics argument to prove that x is no longer the player he once was. No need to entertain the fact that Max has never highlighted his proficiency in analytics beyond broad conclusions of ‘statistical findings’ as well as level 1 arbitrary metrics such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER). For all the glorification of analytics, one would be skeptical whether Max (as well as most other sports analysts) have ever tinkered around with a real data set.
  3. Stephen A. Smith maintains an insolent facade throughout Max’s argument. He begins his own rant by rubbishing, for the umpteenth time, that Max has no knowledge in the subject matter, while also mentioning that he is a great boxing analyst (in part to justify his own endorsement of Max as Skip’s replacement). Smith then speaks about his links with x and about people who hang out a lot with x. He continues his rant as his indifference gradually transitions into a manic fit of dissidence, not unlike a demon-possessed teenager around a Vatican-sanctioned priest.
  4. This is where Molly cuts in, for no reason perhaps but to further aggravate a sizable group of online trolls who have had enough of her interjections.
  5. Max manages to link the story with one of 15 truisms he has held on to, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the subject, such as “Kobe was MJ, but not quite.” 
  6. Stephen A. Smith concludes with his closing remarks, more conciliatory, but not quiet.

Entertaining? Sure. System A certainly seems to like it enough to keep clicking the bait every single day. But is it a thought-provoking, intelligent sports debate? No.

Not all the blame can go to Stephen, Max, and the others at 24/7 sports channels such as ESPN and FS1. Regurgitation of concepts and daily programming have always been good friends for obvious reasons. 

Just as populist politics continues to increase Fox News’s ratings vis-a-vis intelligent news platforms that are barely surviving on donations, intelligent sports debates have understandably dwindled into oblivion for lack of viewership. To paraphrase what Max blindly iterates in each show, the ‘analytics don’t lie”.

At its core, the television production process is more manual labor than art, with the daily grind a contributing factor to creative choices. The likes of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien built vast legacies by mass-producing recurring skits with minimal efforts, like The Late Show’s absurdist and oft hilarious “Will It Float?”. 

Sacrificing Human Intelligence

The real fatality here, of course, is human intelligence. As engagement-driven analytics continue to open the path for emotionally engaging yet mentally unstimulating content, the impetus for intelligent content creators is further narrowed. This will only worsen over the years, as Yuval Noah Harari predicts in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, where he imagines corporate-run AI with access to a constant stream of biochemical data, knowing exactly when to play which video to maximum effect.

Cute cat videos have millions of views for a reason, but they don’t add much to our ability to reason and think – nor should they. 

What’s the solution, you ask? Perhaps, maybe, a group of data scientists should sit down and carefully evaluate the accuracy of the predictions our multi-sport gurus (and not to forget our political analysts) have bestowed upon us over the years. My humble take is that the results will rarely if ever, exceed the half-way mark if we summarise all split probability scenarios. This would do a lot to undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of these talk show hosts as subject-matter experts. As the great Charles Barkley once said, “I am sick and tired of these so-called analysts out here who think they know everything about everything.”

As for myself, I have two options as a viewer: one is to create a separate YouTube account for System B in which I spoon-fed thought-provoking content to the YouTube algorithm so it doesn’t take me for a dunce. Or perhaps, just maybe – I can continue watching these debate shows and accept them for what they really are. The sporting equivalent to cute cat videos.

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