It’s painful to watch the death of a loved one. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” and nowhere is this more true than in the slow, agonizing death of my childhood friend, ESPN.
I still remember the first night I spent at my dad’s apartment, stumbling upon this fledgling sports channel while mindlessly thumbing through the remote. It’s hard to recall a time before 24/7 sports coverage, but back then I could barely sleep from the feverish realization that I could wake up to morning coverage of athletic events. Forced to endure years of David Hartman’s ABC morning show “Good Morning, America,” it was as if I’d suddenly been paroled.
Granted, that “coverage” included tape-delayed broadcasts of slow-pitch softball and harness racing, but it was sports, darn it. ESPN and I experienced our awkward adolescence together, making mistakes but growing like weeds in the suburbs of Connecticut. We both grew fat and happy.
In fact, we both grew a little too fat. Years later, I’d tour the facilities and learn the name “ESPN” didn’t really stand for anything; the founders just wanted to distinguish themselves from the other three-letter networks. These days, it’s more obvious than ever that ESPN doesn’t stand for anything; they’ll sell everything, including their souls.
One look at their flagship website reveals the depths to which they’re sinking. They actually “cover” Vince McMahon’s professional wrestling as if it weren’t an unabashedly scripted TV show (providing wrestler bios, rankings, and “title histories”). Articles on how to bet money on the big games accompany most of their major sports coverage, fostering a love of gambling that would have horrified most a decade ago. Statistician Nate Silver was brought on board to offer numbers analysis (How do we bet this game, Nate?) but spent the last two years providing wall-to-wall political coverage.
That’s right — political coverage. On a sports website.
ESPN’s television broadcasts are suffering even more. The shameless cross-promotion of Disney properties (Disney owns ESPN) has led to the embarrassing exploitation of its on-air talent in a series of painful commercials that sap (what remains of) their credibility. They provide extensive reporting on eSports, which is basically watching people play video games. A few years ago, even ESPN president John Skipper dismissed eSports: “It’s not a sport. … Mostly, I’m interested in real sports.” Funny, so am I. Why the hell is this on the air, then?
Maybe I’m just fighting for the faces I grew up with, but it seems the soul of the company has left the building: Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Mike Tirico … even Chris Berman is stepping down as a regular host. There hasn’t been this much of a talent drain since Justin Timberlake left NSYNC.
The question isn’t whether any of these moves might prove popular; it’s whether any of these things are fit for the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” Why dilute the most powerful brand in its category when Disney owns so many other properties with which to sell The Rat?
I find solace in the words of the 13th-Century mystic Rumi, who once said, “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” I guess I have to hope the Fox Sports Network gains traction soon, at least enough to scare ESPN back to its core mission. Otherwise, we’ll be watching live coverage of WrestleMania and wondering whatever happened to baseball.
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