ESPN currently charges the highest retransmission consent fee of any major cable television network in the United States. The main channel alone carries a monthly rate of $4.69 per subscriber (nearly five times the price of the next-costliest channel, TNT), with ESPN's other English language channels costing an additional $1.13 per subscriber; these prices rise on a nearly constant basis. Part of the cause of this high fee is the amount of money that ESPN pays for sports rights, particularly the NFL. In August 2011, ESPN agreed to pay the NFL $1.9 billion annually for the rights to carry Monday Night Football through 2021; this despite the fact that the broadcast networks pay approximately half that price for their packages, which include the lucrative Super Bowl while ESPN's package does not. Cable and satellite television providers condemned ESPN's most recent contract extension with the NFL and have contemplated moving the network to a higher programming tier to mitigate cost increases.
In 2012, ESPN reportedly paid about $7.3 billion over 12 years for the broadcasting rights to all seven bowl games of the College Football Playoff, an average of about $608 million per year. That includes $215 million per year which they previously agreed to air the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls, plus $470–475 million annually for the rest of the package. Also in 2012, ESPN and Major League Baseball agreed to an eight-year extension, increasing ESPN's average yearly payment from about $360 million to approximately $700 million. And in October 2014, ESPN signed a nine-year extension with the NBA, worth three times as much as the previous deal.
These deals were made when new sports channels like NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 emerged, and so analysts believe that ESPN deliberately drove the prices up as a defensive measure to block these competitors from acquiring live rights. Wall Street analysts have also raised concerns that the amount ESPN is paying for all of these rights could be a major drain on The Walt Disney Company as a whole, since the amount of money that can be recuperated from retransmission consent fees and advertising is limited; Disney still profits from the ESPN division but as of 2015 was cutting the network's higher-priced content to ensure long-term profitability. In October 2015, ESPN laid off about 300 employees, citing the rights costs combined with the increasing trend of cord-cutting.
ESPN has been accused of having a bias towards certain sports teams and a "love affair" with superstar players, particularly the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James and the Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team and their coach John Calipari. (ESPN's ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, responded to these criticisms by saying that the industry is ratings-driven. Since MLB Network launched on January 1, 2009, Baseball Tonight has been the target of criticism because of its perceived bias in favor of certain teams such as the Boston Red Sox and the New York teams, in particular. The most vocal comment was expressed by Heath Bell:
Despite achievements by female athletes, ESPN underrepresents them in its coverage. A longitudinal analysis found that women’s sports received less than 2% of the coverage on SportsCenter. When they are covered, critics argue that female athletes have been featured through the lens a femininity, characterized by a display of sociability and passivity.
On August 4, 2009, Dish Network sued ESPN for $1 million in a federal breach of contract lawsuit, alleging that the network violated the "Most Favored Nations" clause by not extending the same carriage terms that it provided to Comcast and DirecTV for ESPNU and ESPN Classic. On August 5, ESPN announced it would fight the lawsuit and stated in a press release that "we have repeatedly advised Dish that we are in full compliance with our agreement and have offered them a distribution opportunity with respect to ESPNU and ESPN Classic consistent with the rest of the industry. We will not renegotiate settled contracts and will vigorously defend this legal action, the apparent sole purpose of which is to get a better deal."
Dish Network moved ESPNU from its "America's Top 250" package to its "America's Top 120" package on September 30, 2009. However, the provider claimed that the change had nothing to do with the lawsuit. On June 22, 2010, ESPN majority owner The Walt Disney Company pulled the high definition feeds of ESPNews, Disney Channel, Disney XD and ABC Family from Dish Network's lineup, although the standard definition feeds of all four channels remained on the provider. In March 2014, Disney signed a comprehensive carriage deal with Dish Network for its networks (along with several new networks, such as Disney Junior, Longhorn Network, and SEC Network), including high definition feeds and TV Everywhere access for the networks and ABC owned-and-operated stations, and the ability to distribute their networks on a planned over-the-top internet television service. As a condition of the new deal, Dish Network agreed to disable the ability to use the automatic commercial skipping function on its Hopper DVR on ABC programming within 72 hours of its original airing. In December 2014, Dish Network reached a similar new carriage deal with CBS, restricting the use of AutoHop on CBS programming for seven days after its original airing.
In April 2015, ESPN Inc. sued Verizon for offering ESPN and ESPN2 as part of an optional sports theme package under its new "Custom TV" offering for its FiOS service, breaching a requirement for the two networks to be carried as part of the basic service.
In August 2006, ESPN announced that ABC Sports would be fully integrated into ESPN, using the channel's graphics and music for its sports presentations, in addition to handling production responsibilities for the ABC sports telecasts. The brand integration does not directly affect whether either the ESPN network or ABC carries a particular event, as in most cases this is governed by contracts with the applicable league or organization. Perhaps confusingly, this resulted in some events being broadcast with ESPN branding during ABC coverage, even though another channel owns the cable rights – for example, TNT owned the cable television rights to The British Open golf tournament from 2003 to 2009 (with ABC holding rights to broadcast weekend coverage), while IndyCar Series rights are currently split between ABC and NBCSN.
The last live sporting event televised under the ABC Sports banner was the U.S. Championship Game of the Little League World Series on August 26, 2006 (ABC was slated to carry the Little League World Series Championship Game on August 27, but the game was postponed to August 28 due to rain, and subsequently aired on ESPN2). The changeover took effect the following weekend to coincide with the start of the college football season, with NBA, IndyCar Series and NASCAR coverage eventually following suit.
However, ABC used its own graphics (with the ABC logo), to cover the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, similar to the older-styled ESPN graphics but with a yellow base. In 2008, though, it used the newer yellow and red ESPN graphics which had been used on other recent telecasts alongside the ABC logo.
Despite the rebranding, George Bodenheimer's official title remained "President, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports" until his retirement at the end of 2011, upon which the "ABC Sports" portion of the title was retired. In addition, ABC itself maintains the copyright over many of the ESPN-branded broadcasts, if they are not contractually assigned to the applicable league or organizer. ABC-affiliated stations owned by Hearst Television (such as WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh; WCVB-TV in Boston; WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire; WISN-TV in Milwaukee and KMBC-TV in Kansas City) have the right of first refusal over the local simulcasts of ESPN-televised Monday Night Football games involving teams within their home market, which are very rarely waived to other local stations in their market areas. Equally, other Hearst-owned stations affiliated with other networks (such as NBC affiliate WBAL-TV in Baltimore) have been able to air NFL games from ESPN for the same reason.
ESPN has been criticized for decreasing the amount of sports broadcasts on ABC, especially during the summer months. One such example is NASCAR: from 2007 to 2009, ABC aired all of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races, along with the penultimate race to the chase. From 2010 to 2014, ABC only broadcast three Sprint Cup races with only one Chase race (held in Charlotte, North Carolina) to the outrage of many NASCAR fans and sponsors. Several other events such as the Rose Bowl, the Capital One Bowl and The Open Championship, have also been moved from ABC to ESPN. This, however, is not entirely the fault of ESPN, as ABC in general has attracted a primarily female viewership in recent years, with sports largely attracting a male-dominated audience.
Under NFL broadcasting rules, game telecasts aired on cable must be simulcast on broadcast television in the local markets of the teams playing, though the game cannot be televised in the market of the home team if it does not sell out tickets 72 hours before the time of kickoff – games that are not sold out must be blacked out in the market of origin. Similar rules and rights were previously in place for ESPN-televised Major League Baseball playoff games.
Dave O'Brien joined Marcelo Balboa on the primary broadcast team for the 2006 FIFA World Cup coverage on ESPN and ABC Sports, despite having no experience calling soccer matches prior to that year. Because The Walt Disney Company, owner of both television outlets, retained control over on-air talent, the appointment of O'Brien as the main play-by-play voice was made over the objections of Soccer United Marketing, which wanted JP Dellacamera to continue in that role. Disney stated that its broadcast strategy was intended, in voice and style, to target the vast majority of Americans who do not follow the sport on a regular basis. Mispronunciation and incorrect addressing of names, misuse of soccer terminology, and lack of insight into tactics and history plagued the telecasts, resulting in heavy criticism from English-speaking soccer fans, many of whom ended up watching the games on Univision instead.
Some Arena Football League fans complained that ESPN's 2007 and 2008 game broadcast schedules "inequitably favors teams" such as the Philadelphia Soul, Chicago Rush and Colorado Crush, teams whose ownerships respectively include Jon Bon Jovi, Mike Ditka and John Elway. 14 of the 17 ESPN games featured at least one of the three teams playing in the broadcasts. The Soul (whose part-owner and team president is former AFL on ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski) appeared in seven of the 17 regular season games aired on ESPN platforms, more than any other team in the league. This criticism was also present when NBC opted to not let certain teams appear on their schedule. In 2008, the Chicago Rush had nine regular season games on ESPN and ABC, while the 2007 Arena Bowl Champion San Jose SaberCats appeared in just one – a Week 1 game against the Rush; and the New York Dragons appeared in one broadcast, a 10:30 p.m. game versus the Crush. Other criticism includes the scheduling of games on various days and times, as opposed to a weekly AFL gameday.
In 2006, former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds starred in Bonds on Bonds, a 10-part reality series that aired on ESPN. At the time, Bonds was mired in allegations of steroid use during his Major League Baseball career. ESPN was criticized for allowing Bonds such a one-sided public pulpit, as it was the most powerful name in American sports journalism; the show was seen by some as ESPN giving up any semblance of journalism in favor of becoming a public relations front for major sports teams and players. ESPN responded to the criticism by claiming that Bonds would not have creative control and that the episodes would be fair, balanced, and only document the day-to-day activities of Bonds as they occurred, not as Bonds wanted them to occur. ESPN and producer Tollin/Robbins Productions officially pulled the plug on the reality series, citing "creative control" issues with star Barry Bonds and his representatives. No other details about the decision were given. Bonds on Bonds had been absent from the network's schedule since May 30, 2006 and had been generating poor ratings.
The 2007 Subway 500 from Martinsville Speedway was not shown on ABC owned-and-operated station KABC-TV in Los Angeles (owned by ESPN co-parent The Walt Disney Company) on October 21 due to coverage of a series of wildfires that affected Southern California, specifically the Buckweed fire in Santa Clarita and the Canyon Fire in Malibu. The race was instead shown on its second digital subchannel (branded as "ABC7+"), which was not available on satellite providers or on select cable providers in the area.
Several stations chose to pre-empt NASCAR Countdown to carry their local newscasts. KABC-TV pre-empted the pre-race program before every Saturday night race, and as well as before the 2007 Ford 400, which was held on a Sunday afternoon, to air an episode of the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody from the network's ABC Kids block to fulfill E/I programming requirements enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. ABC affiliates WPLG in Miami, Florida and KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas also pre-empted NASCAR Countdown at least once during the 2007 NASCAR season.
KTKA-TV in Topeka, Kansas, located about 55 miles (89 km) from Emporia, the hometown of NASCAR Cup driver (and 2007 Chase participant) Clint Bowyer and about 55 miles from the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, broke away from ABC's coverage of the 2007 Bank of America 500 early on October 13 to air its nightly 10:00 p.m. newscast and did not resume its broadcast of the race. KSAT also aired a brief news update, which came during a red flag, but returned in time for the checkered flag.
The 2008 Sharpie MINI 300 was not seen on several ABC stations for various reasons, ranging from weather bulletins (such as those aired on WSB-TV in Atlanta and WSOC-TV in Charlotte) to stations airing coverage of the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament at the time of the race (such as with KLKN in Lincoln, Nebraska; where the race moved to an ESPN2 alternate feed, which is normally used when syndication exclusivity rules force an ESPN blackout). In addition, ABC's New York City owned-and-operated station WABC-TV carried the race, but pre-empted NASCAR Countdown and the rain delay to cover a construction accident at a high-rise building in Manhattan.
After a red flag during lap 284, the 2008 Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil, viewers in the Eastern and Central Time Zones were forced to watch the finish of the race on Lap 284 on ESPN2 as ABC ended its broadcast of the race to air America's Funniest Home Videos at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time, while the network continued the race to its conclusion (ending at 313 laps) in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones.
Some complaints regarding ESPN have concerned the promotion, or perceived lack thereof, of NBA telecasts. The 2003 NBA Finals received very little significant promotion on ABC or corporate partner ESPN; while subsequent Finals were promoted more often on both networks, NBA-related advertisements on ABC were still significantly fewer compared to promotions on NBC. NBA promos took up 3 minutes and 55 seconds of airtime on ABC during the week of May 23, 2004 according to the Sports Business Daily, comparable to 2 minutes and 45 seconds for the Indianapolis 500. Promotions for the Indianapolis 500 outnumbered promotions for the NBA Finals fourteen-to-nine from the timeframe between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time during that week.
ESPN's studio team was generally more criticized than praised. After the Pacers–Pistons brawl in November 2004, ESPN's studio team came under severe criticism, both by the media and by the network itself for their stance regarding the actions of Indiana Pacers player Ron Artest (who entered the stands to confront a fan, sparking the melee). John Saunders came down hard on Detroit fans, referring to them as "punks", while Greg Anthony and Tim Legler defended Artest. The day after the brawl, Steve Levy led into a report on the brawl on SportsCenter by saying, "before you unconditionally blame the players, take a look and a listen." He concluded the report on the brawl by calling it "on an overall sorry night for the NBA, and especially fans of the Detroit Pistons," without any reference to the Pacers.
During the 2006 WNBA Finals, Detroit Shock head coach, and former ESPN NBA analyst, Bill Laimbeer became irritated by ESPN's coverage. He was quoted by the Detroit Free Press as saying:
On July 8, 2010, basketball player LeBron James announced on a live, one-hour ESPN special that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, beginning with the 2010–11 season. In exchange for the exclusive rights to air the special, ESPN agreed to hand over its advertising and airtime to James. James arranged for the special to include an interview conducted by Jim Gray, who was paid by James' marketing company and had no affiliation with the network. ESPN's reporting leading up to the James special, its decision to air the program, and its decision to relinquish editorial independence were widely cited as gross violations of journalistic ethics.
ESPN suspended journalist and radio personality Dan Le Batard for purchasing billboard signs in Akron, Ohio after LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July 2014, which said "You're Welcome, LeBron. Love, Miami".
ESPN is often accused of having a bias towards certain college basketball teams, including those in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), particularly the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels as well as the Kentucky Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference. ESPN maintains a broadcast rights agreement with the ACC that runs through the 2026-27 season, which provides additional football, men's and women's basketball and Olympic sports coverage on a variety of platforms, suggesting that the bias may have a financial motivation.
Dick Vitale is often criticized for being a "homer" for Duke, especially for Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as well as most teams within the ACC. He is also known for mentioning Duke frequently during broadcasts, even when the Blue Devils are not playing. Temple University head coach John Chaney once said "You can't get Dick Vitale to say 15 words without Duke coming out of his mouth".
On July 14, 2003, ESPN announced that conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh would join Sunday NFL Countdown as a commentator for the 2003 NFL season, beginning with the season's first Countdown telecast on September 7. Limbaugh would provide the "voice of the fan" and was supposed to spark debate on the show. On September 28, Limbaugh commented about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb:
On October 2, 2003, less than one week after he made the comment and following the controversy that resulted, Limbaugh resigned from ESPN.
On July 18, 2009, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit filed by Andrea McNulty. ESPN came under fire for being the only major media outlet that refused to report on the story. ESPN officials attempted to justify their actions by stating that the case is a private matter. Furthermore, ESPN claimed that since Roethlisberger had not addressed the issue publicly, and since no criminal charges had been filed, there was no reason to report on it. However, many have been quick to point out other instances where ESPN has reported on civil cases as well as statements addressing the matter by Roethlisberger's attorney. The network's actions resulted in some media sources accusing them of double standards and poor journalistic practices. ESPN began reporting on the story on July 23, 2009; one month later on August 18, ESPN released a column on its website explaining the network's decision.
In 2015, ESPN received criticism from Deadspin for accepting advertising from DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports site, and integrating the sponsor into the network's football coverage through product placement, breaching the ethical wall between journalism and sponsorship.
In 2011, ESPN agreed to a deal with the NFL worth more than $15 billion. This fact lead several media organizations, including Forbes, to argue whether the financial relationship with the league creates a conflict of interest when ESPN covers the NFL. The network has also been accused of alleged pro-NFL bias on labor issues with the league and the union and ignoring or downplaying crimes or scandals committed by owners.
Also, The New York Times reported that ESPN spiked its partnership with the PBS series Frontline on the 2013 documentary "League of Denial," which chronicles the history of head injuries in the NFL, shortly after a meeting between ESPN executives and league commissioner Roger Goodell took place in New York City, though ESPN denies pressure from the NFL led to its backing out of the project, claiming a lack of editorial control instead.
Boston based journalist Michael Corcoran stated that in the first 7 months after the Deflategate scandal became national news, ESPN.com used the term "Deflategate" in 844 separate articles or videos, including the Chris Mortensen's erroneous report about 11 of the 12 footballs used in the 2015 AFC Championship Game were 2 pounds per square inch (PSI) under NFL regulation. This was compared to when Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, was accused by the FBI in a 120-page affidavit of a five-year-long "conspiracy to scheme" and "defraud its customers" out of millions in rebates for his company Pilot Flying J. In the first 7 months after the FBI raided Haslam's company, ESPN only mentioned the scandal 23 times, less than 3 percent of the coverage of the allegations of football deflation. "ESPN should, at a minimum, disclose the details of its enormous vested interest before reporting any serious story about the league," Corcoran's article concluded.
Nonetheless, in July 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that sources within ESPN believed that the NFL gave them a "terrible" 2015 Monday Night Football schedule as "payback" for remarks made on air by both ESPN commentators Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons that were critical of the league and Goodell; ESPN parted ways with both Olbermann and Simmons during that same year.
Despite the growth in popularity of mixed martial arts and its largest promotion – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – in particular, many fans of the sport feel that ESPN still treats MMA fighting as a fringe sport by either not showing highlights of recent drawing matchups or by portraying the sport in a negative light. Commentators such as Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of Pardon the Interruption, along with Skip Bayless of First Take have openly criticized the sport as inferior to boxing. Jim Rome of the former ESPN program Jim Rome is Burning however, often defends the sport and featured fighters as guests.
Some MMA fans feel that the influence of ESPN's corporate parent The Walt Disney Company (both due to not having broadcast rights and due to Disney's traditionally family friendly image), along with the influence of the boxing media have contributed to what they perceive as negative coverage of the sport on the channel. Other complaints include the ESPN show MMA Live being aired in a late Friday night (1:00 a.m. Eastern Time) timeslot that many MMA fans feel is inadequate, and is often prone to preemptions due to live programming. After the UFC signed a television rights deal with rival Fox Sports, UFC president Dana White lashed out at ESPN following the cancellation of an appearance for an interview promoting the UFC 134 event.
In its early days, ESPN aired various professional wrestling programs, including AWA Championship Wrestling from the American Wrestling Association. ESPN started distancing itself from professional wrestling after the more athletic-oriented AWA went out of business in 1991, two years after World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon admitted that professional wrestling was staged and was more about entertainment than about legitimate athletic competition. ESPN wouldn't distance itself completely from professional wrestling, as the network commissioned the Global Wrestling Federation for three years following AWA's failure, and Canadian sister network TSN held the Canadian rights to WWE Raw from 1996 to 2006, as well as the parent network having aired This is SportsCenter ads featuring The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and John Cena on occasion.
On March 24, 2015, former UFC Heavyweight Champion and then-current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar appeared on SportsCenter for a "huge announcement" after it became public knowledge that Lesnar's WWE contract was set to expire after WrestleMania 31 and that he had been training for a return to MMA. However, Lesnar used the air time to announce that he in fact had re-signed with WWE and was retired from MMA, with part of the interview being done by SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman, himself a former WWE announcer. This would be followed up by a segment on SportsCenter covering Lesnar's match with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 31 for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, featuring Lesnar, Reigns, and Lesnar's manager Paul Heyman in studio for the segment. (Seth Rollins ultimately won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at the event after he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract mid-match.) Although ESPN wasn't criticized for covering WWE, it did receive criticism for covering WWE like a legitimate sport as opposed to entertainment; unlike other countries, the United States generally views professional wrestling as entertainment due to it being an open secret that professional wrestling is staged. Lesnar would subsequently return to MMA (while under contract with WWE) for a one-off match at UFC 200 while WWE and ESPN would gradually increase their collaboration into a regular segment on SportsCenter hosted by Coachman.
The association between ESPN and WWE has received criticism outside of mainstream media and within the two organizations themselves. Coachman himself stated he had wanted a connection between ESPN and WWE for years following his departure from WWE in 2008, but had to wait "until the right person was in charge" before the two sides started forming a partnership. In 2016, the wife of WWE wrestler Kevin Owens would post on social media their eight-year-old son's reaction following Owens winning the WWE Universal Championship. While the post would receive positive responses from most reporters, Amin Elhassin for ESPN tweeted that it was feel-good moment for their son "until he finds out its scripted". Former WWE wrestler Cody Rhodes, who had left WWE on bad terms earlier that year, said that WWE needs to cut ties with ESPN and that having mainstream recognition "isn't worth it" when one of their reporters tries to ruin it for a child.
Aside from ESPN's competitors, Fox Sports, Time Warner, and Yahoo Sports, independent and regional sports focused media firms and blogs, such as Deadspin, The Big Lead, Bleacher Report (now owned by TimeWarner), 700 Level (now associated with Comcast), serve or have served as alternatives for fans looking for balanced coverage or better local coverage.
Accountability attempts by third parties range from news articles, websites, and blogs either in a response to specific events or the ongoing lack of or over coverage by ESPN. Rolling Stone writers, Jordan Burchette and Michael Weinreb each published articles aimed at ESPN's alleged SEC bias during the 2014 college football season. Moreover, an independent blogging group's, known as Are You Cereal Box?, main tactic is to track mentions of ESPN's alleged favorite teams and players via mentions on ESPN.com's front page.
The book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN notes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly told ESPN President George Bodenheimer in reference to the network's failed attempt at a mobile virtual network operator mobile phone service, Mobile ESPN in 2006, that "your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard".
Concerns have been raised by some fans, bloggers and journalists that ESPN's financial stake in the Longhorn Network (which launched in August 2011) creates a potential conflict of interest. Some fear that ESPN's involvement in the network will inhibit journalistic integrity as ESPN has a financial interest in the success of the athletic programs at the University of Texas. Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch wrote: "The network's existence... creates an impossible situation for ESPN's college football producers and reporters (plenty of whom care about reporting). For every story ESPN does on Texas and its opponents, they'll be skeptics wondering what the motivation was for the story."
Additionally, some have questioned the stipulation included in the network's founding agreement that gives Texas the right to dismiss LHN announcers that don't "reflect the quality and reputation of UT." An ESPN spokesperson addressed the situation by stating: "This is not common in ESPN agreements because this UT network is so unique/new for us ...The provision does not allow for random replacement of commentators or reaction to critical comments... it's more about potential situations where a commentator makes completely inappropriate comments or gets involved in inappropriate actions."
Through the show's success, ESPN First Take has also experienced substantial controversy and faced increasing criticism. The show was criticized for what is perceived by many as its excessive coverage of the career of Tim Tebow. During his tenure with the New York Jets, in which he did not start in a game, and threw just eight passes the entire season, Tebow was nonetheless often a leading topic.
As Miami Heat forward LeBron James began a series of playoff appearances with the Cleveland Cavaliers, host Skip Bayless became well known for his belief that James had been overrated by the media and not received enough criticism for his team's playoff failures. Bayless has himself been criticized by fans as well as members of the media for exaggerating James' failures and diminishing his successes. In an exchange with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Cuban argued that Bayless had reduced his analysis of the 2011 and 2012 NBA Finals series to subjective assessments of player psyche rather than relying on objective analysis based on the schematic principles used by the teams in each series.
The show has also received criticism for its treatment of issues of race. During a December 2012 discussion regarding Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and his commenting that he did not wish to be perceived solely as a black quarterback, frequent guest Rob Parker asked whether Griffin III was a "brother" or a "cornball brother." When pressed by host Cari Champion on what he meant, he mentioned that Griffin III had a white fiance and questioned whether he was a Republican. Parker, though, acknowledged that he did not have any information substantiating that claim. In response, Bayless asked whether Griffin III's braids did anything to assuage his concerns. To many, this exchange was part of a larger trend of the nature of the treatment of issues of race by the show.
"Who's Now" was a daily series that aired during SportsCenter throughout July 2007, in which viewers helped ESPN determine the ultimate sports star by considering both on-field success and off-field buzz. Based on fan nominations, ESPN's research department selected 32 finalists to square off in a single-elimination bracket. The show received more than 5 million votes on ESPN.com; during the August 5, 2007 broadcast, professional golfer Tiger Woods was the revealed as the winner. The show received heavy criticism from fans and sportswriters, citing it as nonsensical and irrelevant.
Participants were placed in one of four eight-way "regions" named for historic athletes that, in the judgment of ESPN, best exemplify the qualities of "now": former NBA player Michael Jordan, former boxer Muhammad Ali, baseball player Babe Ruth, and former tennis player Billie Jean King.
In June 2015, ESPN's announcement of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, as the recipient of that year's Arthur Ashe Courage Award, one of its annual ESPY Awards, led to significant criticism among online commenters and some members of the media, with Bob Costas calling the decision to give Jenner the award a "crass exploitation play". Most of the critics of the Jenner award considered Lauren Hill, who played college basketball despite suffering from a brain tumor that would claim her life only a few months later, a more worthy recipient. Others cited Noah Galloway, an Iraq War double amputee who competes in extreme sports and was also a finalist in the spring 2015 season of Dancing with the Stars, as a worthy candidate.