The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

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Believeland

ESPN has a new one of its “30 for 30″programs out.  It’s called Believeland, and it’s about (gulp) professional sports in Cleveland.

Russell and I were talking about it the other day, and he asked if I had watched it.  And I had — at least, the very first part.  But when we got to The Drive, and I knew that The Fumble would be close behind, and then I would have to re-live the Indians’ World Series losses and Michael Jordan’s shot to beat the Cavs and the Browns leaving to go to Baltimore, I switched it off.  It was just too painful to watch all of that crap, again.  Living through it once and feeling like you have been not only utterly forsaken, but also the object of affirmative torture by the sports gods, was more than enough.

il_214x170-890063290_27m0I was kind of embarrassed to admit this to Russell, who also is a Cleveland sports fan.  But Dads who are sports fans have to be honest with their kids about it.  There’s good in being a sports fan, but there’s also a lot of pain and angst and feeling like an idiot because you care so much about a team that you can’t sleep when they lose a big game and sometimes you admit in candor that a bad loss will not only wreck your day, but also wreck your month or even your year, and that there are some bad things that happened — like those mentioned in the preceding paragraph — that will haunt you for the rest of your days until you go toes up.

Interestingly, Russell said he enjoyed the program, because he hadn’t lived through it, and he felt it gave him an understanding of Cleveland and its beleaguered fans that he just hadn’t had before.  It was educational, rather than painful.  And maybe that’s the right way to look at it.  Maybe, until that glorious day in 2137 when a Cleveland team finally wins another world championship, every Dad or Mom who indoctrinates his child into the brotherhood of Cleveland sports fanship should sit that child down in front of the TV, make them watch Believeland, and then ask the crucial question:

Are you sure you’re ready for this?

We Still Have A Long Way To Go

Slowly — all too slowly — we make progress on basic issues of treating everyone the same, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.  Often, we stop and proudly congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment, and then, inevitably, something happens that shows that we aren’t quite as enlightened as we thought after all.

Consider the report ESPN ran recently concerning Michael Sam, the first admittedly gay man to play in the National Football League.  Sam, a linebacker, was a fine player in college.  He sacked Johnny Manziel of the Browns in the Rams’ most recent preseason game, but rather than reporting on Sam’s on-the-field performance the ESPN reporter addressed whether Sam was showering with his teammates — and thereby indulged in some of the most benighted stereotypes imaginable.  It’s amazing that such a report made it on the air, through who knows how many layers of editors and producers and anchors and production assistants, without someone at the network recognizing how demeaning and insulting it was, but it did.  To its credit, ESPN recognized that the report was an egregious blunder and apologized, but you still wonder how it happened in the first place.

One of Sam’s St. Louis teammates, defensive tackle Chris Long, tweeted:  “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.”  I wish that were true.

The Flavor Of The Week

I notice that the Baylor Bears lost to the Oklahoma State Cowboys last night.  In fact, losing doesn’t seem quite like the accurate word when you fall by a score like 49-14.  Perhaps crushed is more accurate.  Or obliterated.  Or shellacked.

I’ve got nothing against Baylor, and I’m not one of those thin-skinned Ohio State fans who becomes enraged at every perceived slight from the national media.  I don’t watch ESPN, I don’t read sports columnists on line, and I really don’t much care what some carefully coiffed commentator has to say about whether one team is better than another — because they are so often, and so predictably, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

This season, however, members of Buckeye Nation can’t help but notice that the sports chat community always seems to want to talk up some team other than Ohio State.  I think that’s not only because the TV shows and the talk radio community focus on ginning up controversy to attract viewers, but also because they are just dazzled by high-scoring offenses.  Until yesterday, Baylor was a high-flying offense that was putting up the points, just as Oregon had done before it.  (Coincidentally, Oregon also got mauled yesterday.)  These teams are like the flavor of the week at the local ice cream shop — it’s interesting to try the vanilla mango cherry pistachio mix, but at the end of the week you realize chocolate chip is just better.

It’s an old saying in college football that November separates the contenders from the pretenders.  With Michigan Week now officially upon us, Ohio State remains undefeated.  There are not many teams left that can say that.

Style Points

This afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes beat Illinois on the road, 60-35.  The win left the Buckeyes 10-0 and winners of 22 games in a row.

But, for commentators, winning just isn’t enough these days.  Sure, the Buckeyes won . . . butBut, Illinois stinks.  But, the Big Ten stinks.  But, the Buckeyes let Illinois score 35 points.  But, the Buckeyes led by less than two scores in the fourth quarter before putting the game away.  But, the Ohio State offense had to punt the ball more than they have in weeks.  But, but, but!

IMG_1815To the ESPN commentators, college football these days is all about “style points.”  If you’re not one of the top two teams in the BCS rankings, just winning isn’t enough.  You’ve got to pulverize your opponent, grinding them into the ground while at the same time showing the speed, skill, and flair that might cause wary voters to think that you belong on the same field as one of the top two teams.  And if you give up 35 points to a dreadful team like Illinois, well, you’re just not cutting it in the style category.

This all seems very silly to me, and largely a media effort to stir up pointless controversy and increase their ratings and website hits.  Oregon won with a lot of style . . . until they got manhandled.  Clemson showed a lot of style . . . until they got trounced.  I’d rather see the Buckeyes try to work on things and continue to improve — and win, of course — rather than just trying to score as many points as they possibly can.

Just win, baby!  Win, and let the chips fall where they may.  There are still a lot of games to be played, and talking about “style points” seems awfully premature.

The Buckeyes, And Rodney Dangerfield

Last night, Stanford beat Oregon.  That result caused the ESPN talking heads, and sports show commentators throughout the land, to start talking about whether Stanford should jump over undefeated Ohio State in the race to get to the BCS National Championship game.

Of course, such talk caused heads to explode throughout Buckeye Nation.  Loyal wearers of the Scarlet and Gray questioned how a one-loss team, which fell to 4-4 Utah, could possibly leap the undefeated Buckeyes.  They wondered why Ohio State — like Rodney Dangerfield — is getting no respect this year.

There are two obvious reasons.  First, everyone knows that the Big Ten, top to bottom, just isn’t that good.  Second — and at least equally important — the members of the sports talk show fraternity realize that controversy helps increase ratings.  They know that ardent Buckeye fans are easy to bait and quickly worked into a frenzy by the slightest sign of disrespect.  So, if you are a radio or TV sports show host who puts the two together, you know that dismissing the Buckeyes’ latest drubbing of a Big Ten opponent, followed by raves when Stanford beats Oregon or Baylor beats Oklahoma, is bound to get you some angry calls from loyal OSU fans.  And if you just want listeners, or readers, who cares whether they are agreeing with you or not?

I hope that the Buckeyes, unlike their fans, forget about the shows of disrespect and realize that there is nothing they can do other than win their game each week.  If Ohio State can beat Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, and then topple, say, Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference Championship game, they’ve done all that they can do.  I’m betting that, if that happens, the Buckeyes won’t have to worry about getting respect from the media.  Instead, they’ll be worrying about how they can win that National Championship game for a change.

Minding Mel Kiper For Mother’s Day

The NFL draft is underway.  It’s become a three-day extravaganza, which means we get more exposure to Mel Kiper, Jr. and his curious hairstyle than human beings should be expected to endure.

IMG_3664Little did I know that Mel not only is a know-it-all about the draft, he’s also happy to give his “picks” on other topics.  When I went on the ESPN website today, I was amazed to see an ad for a “gift finder” that featured Mel Kiper’s picks for Mother’s Day gifts.  Now you can delight your dear old mother or your lovely wife with a present that has the Mel Kiper seal of approval!  What’s next?  Mel’s grinning mug hawking websites that help you to find the perfect romantic getaway or to decide which college to attend?

I know it’s a joke, but still . . . anyone who relies on Mel Kiper for Mother’s Day ideas needs to step away from the draft board and re-engage with real life.