Has anyone else noticed an alarming trend from the “worldwide leader in sports” over the past few years? Turn on any of the four ESPN channels right now and you can probably find some blowhard idiot pontificating about something you could care less about. This is not the exception these days. I’m sad to report the wheels have fallen off my favorite sports network.
In the early days of the network ESPN was like a third parent to me. I could go to “SportsCenter” for wit and scores. “The Sports Reporters” had interesting commentary and “Baseball Tonight” was the spot for hardcore baseball analysis. Guys like Kenny Mayne, Craig Kilborn and Rich Eisen held it down and passed the “SportsCenter” torch through the years. Even Chris Berman was only moderately annoying at the outset; he wasn’t in to full drunk uncle mode yet like the current iteration. “The Sports Reporters” had Dick Schaap holding court on important social and sporting issues. “Baseball Tonight” had guys who loved baseball and understood the science of the game (in other words anyone besides John Kruk and Joe Morgan).
Where are these shows now? Well, I haven’t watched SportsCenter in the last two years because it became more fluff than info. In trying to compete with online formats the TV show has become a venue for screaming to get a laugh. It’s not nearly as effective as it once but it’s not as bad as some of ESPN’s other offerings. At least you get some actual information, if only on accident. “Quite Frankly” with Stephen A. Smith poses as a hard hitting sports show but is actually more of a forum in which Stephen A. Smith shows you who the man is (hint: it’s Stephen A. Smith). “Baseball Tonight” has become a show in which the Krukster says brilliant stuff like “I love it when guys hustle!” Only Peter Gammons is remotely tolerable and he’s over a billion at this point. The Sunday Night Football crew was mercifully put out to pasture, but not before they actually made people dumber for listening. Boom! Don’t even get me started on ideas like ESPNHollywood which makes about as much sense as my new LaremyPottery show.
At some point over the past decade the channel has morphed into something no one could have imagined. When the network started it was grandly named “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.” They changed that name to just ESPN and somewhere in there Entertainment became the priority with sports being lower on the food chain. Why has this happened? One reason must be the changing landscape. When ESPN first hit the airwaves the internet was a fledgling enterprise. You could either wait for the morning’s paper or tune in to get the scores. Guess what I always chose? Now I can just head to ESPN.com, CNNSI.com, CBSSportsline.com, NFL.com, NBA.com… well, you get the point. I need not tune in anymore because I’ve got the information superhighway at my disposal.
Unfortunately this meant the only audience left for ESPN the network to capture were people who really liked loud noises. In came the “entertainers” (and I use that term very loosely). The only current show on ESPN worth watching is “Pardon the Interruption” which is essentially two buddies talking sports with a few jokes thrown in. The show only works because Tony and Mike are real guys that talk like all your friends. Horrific endeavors such as “Cold Pizza” and “Around the Horn” might as well feature monkeys throwing poop for all the entertainment they provide. “Around the Horn” is particularly hideous with awful newspaper columnists trying to verbally one up each other and fight for airtime. It feels like watching your little brothers get in a fight over the nickel on the floor. In comparison at least “Cold Pizza” is only merely boring.
With ESPNews, ESPN2 and ESPNU all up and running it’s probably impossible to maintain the talent level and quality of programming. You’d also have to think being affiliated with Disney and ABC makes the network less innovative. In the early days ESPN was an underdog fighting the good fight against the man but now the network is clearly the 800lb gorilla. They can do whatever they hell they want, put on lousy commentators or play by play guys and not be affected in the least by it. What are you going to do, not watch the big game? This type of complacency always breeds mediocrity.
Luckily I’m here to present the answer in a rare TV CORNER exclusive. The solution is for individual sports networks to gain a foothold. The NFL network has already laid claim to televising a few games a year and is starting to cherry pick the good coverage and interviews. I would expect the NBA to soon follow suit. Baseball and Hockey won’t figure it out but no one watches them day in and day out anyway.
If ESPN becomes an outsider again in the near future we could see a resurgence. Or perhaps if one of the eight ESPN Networks dies a horrible death they’ll be able stock up on talent. Maybe the internet will go away and we’ll need to lunge for the remote to get a fix. ESPN does need a ton of maybes and perhaps’ to come through to be relevant again. Until then I’d recommend a heavy dose of “not watching” mixed with “ignoring”. It may be the only way to save your smarts.