Friday, July 24, 2009

When did ESPN jump the shark?

When ESPN started in 1979, it was a nobody, in the middle of nowhere, with a crazy idea. Now, they are the "Worldwide Leader in Sports", a monolith, owned by a major network (ABC), and, by extension, a major corporation (Disney). The term "selling out" might be a good description, but it is so much more than that.

As I talked about this in the waning moments of last week's show (#16), ESPN has fallen far. In this new frontier of the sports blogosphere, 24/7 updates to many sports websites, and league-owned cable networks, ESPN is not as necessary as they used to be.

The days of "The Big Show", "NHL2nite", and the halcyon days of "Baseball Tonight" are all in the rear-view mirror. Favoritism towards some teams, so centered on the Yankees at the beginning of the decade, I used to playfully call the network ESPNY. They also have showed favoritism to Boston in recent years, too. ESPN has become best buddies with the athletes and management they cover, getting athletes and other sports figures to do the "ESPN car wash" of "Mike & Mike in the Morning", "ESPN FirstTake", "Pardon the Interruption", and other TV and radio shows.

Then, there are the dreaded ESPYs. Awarding athletes to honor and spotlight the best in sports is okay, but turning the event into a red-carpet event, with the network and its reporters rubbing elbows with them shows a compromise of integrity and good reporting.

The whole situation this week with ESPN's treatment, or lack thereof, of the accusation of Ben Roethlisberger in a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino is an interesting study of how ESPN handles its bedfellows. The handling of the situation by ESPN has become the much bigger story here. I mean, the picture of Big Ben in the article on the site even has an ESPY logo in the background! Roethlisberger is also participating in an episode of a new reality show, called "Shaq Vs." with Shaquille O'Neal on ABC, which owns ESPN, on August 8th. Also, ESPN may want to tread lightly on this issue that involves the face of the defending Super Bowl Champions considering ESPN's wedded relationship to the NFL and its Monday Night Football television package.

This all got me to thinking...when did ESPN "jump the shark"?
* Was it when Keith Olbermann left, effectively ending the SportsCenter portion of "The Big Show" and leading to countless pretenders to jump in the anchor's seat and try to yell and catch-phrase their way to super-stardom? Word was that Olbermann had an ego the size of Rhode Island, but you have to agree when Dan Patrick-Keith Olbermann tag-teamed, it was "must-watch TV".
* Was it hiring Rush Limbaugh to join the cast on "NFL Countdown"? That was a dud if there ever was one. It started poorly and went downhill from there, climaxing in a racial comment on Donovan McNabb's abilities at quarterback.
* Was it introducing the ESPYs? They now have red-carpet reporting to greet the athletes and their guests waving and smiling as they enter the event.
* Was it the 25th Anniversary cross-promotion and endless chest-thumping and retrospectives? If I see Chris Berman on the sidelines of a 49er comeback victory in the early '80s one more time, I am asking my wife to put a parental block on ESPN and not tell me the combination to unlock it.
* Was it the pre-eminence of the "sport" of poker in prime-time? ESPN has aired fringe sports since its beginnings, but that was when they did not have money or access to get the big boys on their air. They can, but they still choose to air this stuff.
* Was it the corporate synergy of "ESPN Radio", "ESPN The Magazine", ESPNZone restaurants, "ESPN on ABC"? I thought "ESPN 8: The Ocho" was a joke, but I think it really is an idea about 10 years too soon for the ESPN execs.
* Was it the rise and subsequent downfall of Fox Sports Net? FSN forced ESPN to up the ante and dumb-down its content to appeal to the masses instead of staying the course and forcing everyone else to wise up. It came and went, leaving ESPN's better days in its wake.
* Was it the ill-fated attempt at a Barry Bonds reality show? I think that is when I consciously stopped watching.

I have greatly lost interest in ESPN, mainly because of the myriad other options available to the sports fan. The funny thing is: if ESPN was not so good at what it did in its infancy and its adolescence, perhaps we would not have the options we have today.

ESPN has pulled together programming from Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and most recently, the National Basketball Association and every single Grand Slam in Tennis. Now, each sport has its own channel to dedicate programming and access to it.

ESPN Radio has formed a network across the country, simulcasting its morning show and making its hosts and contributors into celebrities. They were late to the sports radio boom, but with its sheer reach, access, and dollars, some of the smaller fish might be blown out of the water. But, satellite radio is a "big fish" answer to ESPN. Fox Sports Radio, league-run stations, as well as Sirius XM's own sports stations, are great alternatives.

The time will come where it will either cost ESPN an exorbitant amount of money to keep broadcasting major sports on its air or the leagues could air more of their own original content. For instance, when the MLB television contract with ESPN and FOX is up, MLB can charge an obscene amount of money for those networks to keep a MLB presence or else MLB Network could take a much larger position in its own product.

The monster that ESPN played a large part in creating may end up consuming them. They have made tremendous strides in covering sports, but, along with that, they have created personalities that think they are larger than the sports they cover and they have become just about unwatchable. ESPN has also helped further the new-world athlete personality by boiling down a game into a 40-second set of slam-dunks and home runs and coddling those athletes to stay on their good sides.

ESPN can still save themselves and perform a service to the sports fan, getting back into their good graces without turning them off with cross-promotion, over-promotion, and bombastic chest-thumping. They can halt the impeding exodus that indirectly points fans to get their information from the ever-growing list of alternatives.

How about showing highlights of every major sporting event, every day. You know, like in the old days? Enough with the commentary from your "experts" or puff pieces during the show.

How about retaining the right people and employing capable people to carry the SportsCenter torch? I have missed the Dan Patricks and Keith Olbermanns and Bob Leys from doing SportsCenter on a regular basis. If they soured on the product, there had to be a reason.

Nothing will happen until it has to. But, the time ESPN will have to do something may be sooner than you think.

Next show: Sunday night (7/26) at 8pm ET on

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