ESPN’s new program-specific blog: the choice of UNC over the other powerhouse programs

As I mentioned in the Halloween post, ESPN.com has created a new college basketball blog focused solely on UNC, hiring Robbi Pickeral away from the Raleigh News & Observer to write about the Heels for a national audience. As I have no knowledge whatsoever of ESPN’s internal decision-making process here, what I write in this post is purely speculative. But their choice of Carolina as the first program for which to focus a school-specific blog seems to speak volumes about our status as the premier college basketball program in America.

No matter the circumstances that led to the hiring of Pickeral, ultimately the decision cannot help but represent a choice of UNC over the other schools on the short list options. As a write this post, though, I noticed that ESPN has created two program-specific blogs for college football: Notre Dame and Stanford. The Notre Dame selection was no doubt due to their status as a football independent without a conference-specific blog to cover them. Stanford’s is more odd, and discredits my attempt to find meaning in UNC’s selection. I’ll write it off as an anomaly; ESPN could have chosen a major SEC school and did not, so there must be some extenuating circumstances I don’t know about. The choice of UNC, however, is not hard to figure.

Probably the most significant factor in choosing Carolina for this blog was the timing of 2011. Beyond fitting the criteria for consideration, we are the unanimous preseason #1 team preparing for what may be one of our greatest seasons in team history, and we are perhaps at the pinnacle even of our own storied history, looking for our third national title in eight seasons. Had it been another year, the choice could have been Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or UCLA.

Then again, it at least could have been Kentucky or Duke this season, but it wasn’t. Moreover, a huge part of our current place in college basketball is directly tied to our accomplishments not only in 2005 and 2009, but in the stretch running from 2005 to now. Even prior to Roy’s arrival, we were arguably the program with the highest level of consistent success since 1950, with arguably the largest, most loyal and deep-rooted fan base. Only Kentucky could rival us on the first claim; just Duke could on the second, and only then provided you omit the ‘deep-rooted’ criterion from the question. Kentucky likely wasn’t chosen because their fan base isn’t large enough; Duke didn’t get the nod because their program has vastly underperformed in both hype and post-season success over the period coinciding with UNC’s peak, excepting their 2010 title. Duke should enviously accept their inferior stature represented, in part, by this blog.

In the last couple of years, ESPN created separate websites to house content focused on five major U.S. cities with deep and diverse sports histories: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. While the UNC blog is a much smaller venture, it makes similar acknowledgements about a particular sports fan base: the brand has enough national appeal to warrant a spot on a national website, and there are enough people in a given region of the country to comprise regular, sustainable traffic to the site.

One cannot help but notice that the Southeast is the only region of the country not represented in those five major U.S. cities; neither Atlanta or the Charlotte-Raleigh combination provides enough of a cross-sport fan base to support one. But college basketball alone does control the region’s attention just as, for example, the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins all do in Boston. By itself, it couldn’t sustain a website, but it can sustain a blog. Our region should treat its creation as a badge of honor that college basketball in our state is one of the closest sports institutions in America to equaling the prominence of professional sports in our biggest, most rooted sports towns.

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