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What Twitter and DeAndre Jordan can tell us about the future of ESPN

ESPN 3-D Television Launch Event For 2010 FIFA World CupESPN 3-D Television Launch Event For 2010 FIFA World Cup
One of several studios on the Bristol, Conn. ESPN campus Bloomberg via Getty Images

First, a confession: I don’t really follow basketball that closely. I know I probably should, but I just don’t. And yet, even I — someone who not only doesn’t follow it, but tries to tune it out when others in my Facebook and Twitter streams mention it — picked up on what was happening with the DeAndre Jordan story on Wednesday. And I think it says something interesting not only about Twitter but about where media is right now, and about the future of players like ESPN.

For those like me who weren’t following it, DeAndre Jordan is a star center with the Los Angeles Clippers, the team owned by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. He became a free agent recently, and his team wanted to re-sign him very badly, but Jordan decided at some point that he might sign with the Dallas Mavericks, owned by tech billionaire and TV personality Mark Cuban.

Because of the way the basketball business works, however, the star center had about a week to think about his final decision, and on Wednesday, it sounded like he was thinking about changing his mind and staying with the Clippers. The only important thing about all of these details is that they created a moment of extreme tension in the basketball world, as everyone waited to see what Jordan would decide, with the fate of the championships apparently hanging in the balance.

In the end, Jordan decided to stay with the Clippers. But in the meantime, it was what technology analyst Ben Thompson called “the best Twitter day ever,” mostly because star players for the Clippers, the Mavericks and everyone in between were busy tweeting jokes and inside references to Jordan and his momentous decision. It was like a reality TV show unfolding in real-time on Twitter, giving everyone a front-row seat. As Thompson wrote in his Stratechery newsletter:

“I get it if this all sounds just a bit ridiculous. You’ll just have to take my word that to actually sit there and watch this unfold in real-time, with some of the most famous basketball players in the world making jokes and making fun of each other, while everyone else chipped in with ridiculous photoshop jobs and silly gifs, was absolutely spell-binding and incredibly fun. It truly was something that could have only happened on Twitter.”

As Thompson also pointed out, Twitter doesn’t really get any direct benefit from all of this drama, because there’s no easy way for it to capture or display that kind of back-and-forth (although it is working on something called Project Lightning that could help). But the fact remains that it has become the go-to place for such news, and it is increasingly coming from those at the center of the action — whether it’s a basketball player or the Israeli army saber-rattling with the Palestinian defense forces.

It’s not just Twitter, of course. There’s Vine and Periscope, Meerkat and YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook. And for traditional media entities like ESPN, all of that represents competition for the thing that gives them most of their power — namely, access to the players. As media reporter Brian Stelter has described, having Rupert Murdoch on Twitter makes it more difficult for you when a big chunk of your job consists of trying to get the News Corp. CEO to say something.

In a long piece in The Atlantic on ESPN and the challenges the company is facing, writer Derek Thompson looks at some of the competitive pressures for a major sports-media entity, and the profusion of new outlets for content is clearly one of them. The sports giant still has plenty of broadcast revenues and exclusive rights to sporting events coming in the door, but as Thompson puts it:

“When sports fandom splinters from one-size-fits-all TV programming to atomized updates on 200 million phones, does the long tail win, after all? On the Internet, is anything—any report, image, highlight, or attitude—ever only available in a single place? And are social-media portals (like Facebook) replacing publishers (like ESPN) as the destination platforms of the Internet?”

To its credit, ESPN is trying to think like a new-media entity with at least part of its brain, a part that includes its Push team, who handle hundreds of millions of news alerts to smartphones as well as pushing content to other services like Snapchat. In a way, it sounds like ESPN is trying to “think like an API,” as Atlantic Media’s business-news site Quartz has described it — in other words, a distributed approach that looks at virtually any platform as a potential home.

Whether that kind of strategy will allow ESPN to retain anything close to the kind of power it used to wield remains to be seen, but it’s pretty clear that without it, the media giant could wind up suffering the death of a thousand cuts, like a T-Rex being torn to pieces by a horde of more nimble predators. And there are signs it is already weakening.

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