The ESPiNation of Geography

On March 29, 1976, the great illustrator Saul Steinberg secured his place in sports history with a New Yorker cover called “View of the World From 9th Avenue.” In the drawing, 50 percent of the United States consists of the blocks between Ninth and the Hudson River in New York City, and the other 50 percent is almost completely barren, save for a few lumps of stone somewhere near Denver and a grove of trees in Las Vegas.

For years, art historians, sports broadcasters, Jeter-watchers and fans of Big East basketball—all of them residing within a 200-mile radius of Bristol, Connecticut—have discussed with a mix of awe and delight how Steinberg managed to encapsulate the worldview of ESPN three years before the network was founded. ESPN simply took Steinberg’s painterly vision and made it real: In ESPN world—as we’ve learned from years of reading and listening—the dysfunctional Mets and Jets are more important than San Francisco’s high-achieving Giants and 49ers, St. John’s University is better at basketball than San Diego State, and Nevada is pronounced with the word “awwww” in the middle. (“Alabawwwma” is spared a similar mangling; the ESPN map’s chief difference with Steinberg is the American South becomes disproportionately large from September through January.)

None of this would make me in the least grumpy if it didn’t completely deform the landscape of American sports.

Statistically, the Mountain West Conference ranks third in basketball, but as of Jan. 4, only two of its teams are ranked in The Associated Press Top 25. The Big East is just one-tenth of a point ahead of the Mountain West in the number-crunch but has six teams in the AP Top 25. Earlier this season, New Mexico lost its first game of the year and dropped out of the rankings. The moment New Mexico moved back into the rankings, UNLV fell clear off the list from No. 20 after losing by six points as road underdogs at North Carolina. It was only the Rebels’ second loss of the year.

ESPN does not make the rankings, but the sportswriters who make the rankings live on a strict diet provided by the ESPN cafeteria.

Trifling? Hardly: The ESPiNation of American geography has caused entire institutions of higher learning to replace the maps in all textbooks with Steinberg’s map. Thus Boise State University spent the last year convincing itself that it occupied a penthouse flat on Ninth and Broadway and was natural football rivals with Syracuse. That sort of thing costs money: Have
you ever tried to sneak an extra offensive lineman into the overhead compartment on Allegiant?

The good news is that Boise State is tearing up its Steinberg map and staying in the Mountain West. The other good news is that apparently there’s a nice grove of trees in Vegas. Hopefully they’ll bear fruit in March.