During the excellent BS Report podcast with John Walsh, Bill Simmons and John discuss the backlash for ESPN, but what was surprising to me was how little self-awareness there was in the dicussion, particularly considering Bill is one of the better “big picture” sports minds that has heavy readership. I’m someone who has watched ESPN for literally my entire lifetime- I tought myself to read on the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle at age 2 and have been a sports diehard ever since. This included waking up a full hour early on weekdays to watch the full SportsCenter before elementary school each and every morning. In the almost twenty years from then until now, I have been a sports consumer of the highest order (in magnitude) given the restrictions on my means. What immediately came to mind were three basic categories that summarize the biggest beefs I have with the Worldwide Leader and those will serve as the organization from here on out.
1. The emphasis on the individual instead of the big picture. Let’s get this out of the way first: I love SportsCenter as a concept and always have. The power to get highlights from one source in such a higher volume than was previously available is something incredible. That said, the problem is that the network never goes beyond the SportsCenter level of depth on teams or schemes. There is a beauty to watching the Spurs play, and you would never know it by watching anything on the Worldwide Leader other than one of their games. Simmons et al have talked about the Battier piece by Michael Lewis at length in the last little while- is there any reason why their network can’t talk about the value of having an unselfish defender in their non-SportsCenter programming? Of course, the effect that we are seeing on individualized play (discussed previously here), particularly in the NBA and basketball in general, is in no way ESPN’s fault alone. Programs like AAU that do not properly teach defense (for the most part) are greater factors, but I sure think we’d see less Gerald Greens if the there were elements of play that carried weight on the network besides dunks, threes, touchdowns, goals, and home runs. Again, it is fine that their flagship show does this, but doing it nearly 24/7 leads into the next problem…
2. Catering to a lower common denominator. In the podcast, Simmons uses the phrase “You can’t follow sports without [ESPN] in a way ,” which I completely agree with. And therein lies the biggest problem. ESPN is doing a much better job now of showing games, but they have been consistently terrible at programming for the more obsessed sports fan. What is so funny about this is that it is such a large (and vocal) subsection of the ESPN audience that has been largely ignored. Instead of having the legions of PTI/Max Kellerman ripoff shows on the network with diluted talent for each one, with shows like Cold Pizza as the posterchildren for the problem, why couldn’t they use that time to have people who really know about their sport (like Jaws and Dilfer for football and any of their high level basketball guys) talk about more nuts and bolts things? There is a gigantic collection of sportsfans that would watch a 30 minute a week program about things like offensive line play, the Triangle offense, or nuances of football coverage schemes. What’s more, the growing prevalence of DVR’s makes having repetitive programming even more insane, since the sports obessesed can just watch the best programs they have stored instead of being stuck with what’s on.
What’s more, I have no idea why ESPN has been so hesitant to give any stats-heavy people any air time. I’m not talking about the Hollingers of the world having short bits on ESPNEWS- I’m talking about a once a week show where sabermetrics guys in baseball (and/or equivalents in the other sports) get together and talk about either current trends in their sport or other topics. The lack of coverage for minor league sports is baffling too- I don’t think getting the rights to those games would be too costly and it is obvious they have the airtime to fill. If the Sports Reporters could do it every week, they could get 4/5 “nerds” in the same room once a week, changing sports as necessary. Hell, they could do draft roundtables once a month for an hour with ESPN experts and non-ESPN affiliated people (Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, Scott Wright of NFLDraftCountdown, to name two) to talk about players and picks at a higher level than Kiper and McShay jawing for snippets on SportsCenter. The NFL Network’s “Path to the Draft” is an awfully good jumping off point for this, and it’s hard to figure out why ESPN couldn’t evolve the concept with their incredible resources.
The other major advantage that they are not capitalizing on in this area is the availablily of recently aired games. It would be easy for them to set aside a few hours during decent viewing times each week to re-air recently occurring games that they have the rights to. Wouldn’t it have been nice when ESPN was showing highlights of the Texas/Oklahoma State basketball classic a few years back to say “Hey, and if you missed it last night, ESPN2 is airing it tonight at 6!” Worse comes to worse, none of the games ESPN/ABC/etc hold the rights to for a few days are worth repeating and they have to either dig into the archives for a topical older game (like a previous matchup of two teams in a big game coming up) which they have as well. Furthermore, they consistently miss the boat on creating new stars by the outright refusal to air games of less “sexy” teams in each sport, which delayed or weakened the statutre of teams and individuals like the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Grady Sizemore, hockey, and the Portland Trailblazers. I don’t count the NFL because of how small their TV deal is (one game a week), but there is no excuse for the lack of team variety on the ESPN family of networks considering how long seasons are.
3. Minimalizing non-ESPN sports events and overcovering ESPN events. How cognizant of this a sports fan is of this issue directly relates to what teams they care about. As an alum of a Pac-10 school, I can attest to the favoritism ESPN shows to conferences that they share broadcasting rights with both in terms of highlights and discussion as a part of other shows. Now, part of this is understandable from a business perspective- they have a product to sell. The problem is that when you are the only game in town it is both smart business and ethically conscious to cast a wider net. You’ve got a captive audience anyway- it’s not like ACC fans or sports fans in general are going to be hurt by spending a more balanced amount and it certainly does not affect anyone’s likelihood of watching future games on the network. Part of ESPN in the E, and “entirely” should be both in terms of what they show and what proportion of the sports world they provide to viewers. Another prominent example of this presently is the amount of coverage the Women’s NCAA tournament gets on the network. While I am someone who fully supports women’s sports, devoting as much time as they do to the sport (pretty much ONLY during the Tournament, which they show) at a time when sports in the US is at its peak is just irritating. Show the games if you like and it’s fine to have the highlights in SportsCenter, but cutting coverage of the big events of the season in terms of sports fan interest just works to alienate the exact people ESPN wants to keep watching their programming as much as possible.
ESPN, it’s hard for me because you take such an amazing idea and have kneecapped it for twenty-five years by not using every weapon in your arsenal and blatantly ignoring the hardcore fans no matter what they are hardcore about. Luckliy, no one has fully stepped up to the plate yet so there is still time to get their attention before more fan-friendly options such as the NFL Network and a variety of Internet sites take them away.