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.

Jabrill Peppers? Really??

I didn’t watch the TV broadcast of the first day of the draft.  Partly it’s because it always is a time of heartbreak for Browns fans, but partly on principle.  I’m supposed to get excited about the mere occurrence of the NFL’s mechanism for deciding which team gets to begin negotiations with which athlete?  Sorry, I’d rather do just about anything else.

So this morning, I checked to see what the Browns had done.  Hmmm . . . three first-round choices?  A guy who hopefully will provide some much-needed past-rushing skills to the defense?  OK, I get that.  A tight end?  OK, a bit more iffy, but if the kid is a playmaker, I suppose I get that, too.

peppers-celebratejpg-c2f7c7fec7e3927dBut Jabrill Peppers?  Really?

I’m not saying this because Peppers attended That School Up North.  I’m saying it because I’ve followed the Big Ten, and I’ve watched Peppers play.  I think he is a reasonably good punt returner, but other than that I think he’s one of the most overrated players in college sports in the last five years.  Sure, he played a lot of positions — but how many big plays did he make in big games?  When the chips were down and Michigan was trying to beat Ohio State, what kind of contribution did Peppers make?  I think really good players tend to rise to the top in big games.  Peppers didn’t.

I hope I’m wrong, and Peppers is a combination of Eric Metcalf and Thom Darden, bringing punt-returning excitement and interception big-play potential to the Browns.  But right now, color me skeptical.  Peppers seems like an undersized guy who lacks serious “football speed” and made his rep scoring touchdowns and playing multiple positions against teams that weren’t very good.  In the NFL, on the other hand, he’ll be playing for a team that isn’t very good.

I’m sensing another wasted first-round pick, folks.

As Browns Fans Contemplate Another First Round Pick . . . .

the-scream

If you didn’t know that he lived in Europe in the 19th century, you’d probably swear that Edvard Munch was a Cleveland Browns fan.

Why?  Because The Scream perfectly captures, better than anything else I’ve seen, the unique combination of horror, fear, disgust, and profound dread that grips Cleveland Browns fans as they contemplate the team making another first-round pick in the NFL draft.  Indeed, Munch even painted the disturbing, roiling sky behind the angst-ridden screamer in the Browns’ familiar orange colors.

If you’re a Browns fan, knowing that the NFL draft is only a few hours away and that the Cleveland franchise has the first choice to boot, you feel almost compelled to cup your face in your hands, let your eyes open wide, and howl out to the waiting world the deep anxiety and disquiet that you feel as you consider prior drafts and contemplate the likes of Gerard Warren, Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Kellen Winslow . . . and Johnny Manziel.

In fact, any fan of another NFL team would think of the ludicrous choice of “Johnny Football” and feel a perverse sense of comfort.  After all, how could this year’s pick possibly be any more wrong-headed and disastrous than that?  But this is the Cleveland Browns, remember.  With the Browns, all things bad are possible.

Go ahead, Browns Backers!  Tip back your head and wail for all you’re worth.  The NFL draft is here.

Pro Sports In Vegas

The NFL has approved the request of the Oakland Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas.  It’s not clear when the Raiders will actually start playing in Vegas, and the team will likely play another season or two in Oakland, but a new stadium is expected to be built for them in their new home in southern Nevada in time for the 2020 season.

ows_149067187344496The story here isn’t another move of a pro sports franchise; teams packing up and hauling their operations to a new town is old news these days.  The Raiders, who have shuttled back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and always seem to be either moving or on the verge of moving, are one of the hand-wringing teams that are forever working their local government for a more lucrative deal.  If Las Vegas wants to foot the bill for a lavish new domed stadium — which is expected to cost at least $1.9 billion, with the costs being split between revenues generated by an increased hotel room tax, the Raiders organization, and a Las Vegas gazillionaire — to get the NFL brand associated with Sin City, that’s its decision to make.

No, the real story here is that the Raiders’ approved move to Las Vegas is just the latest evidence of the increasingly accepted association of gambling and sports.  Gambling used to be one of the chief concerns of professional and college sports teams.  From the Chicago Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, to the college basketball point-shaving scandals of the ’40s and ’50s, to the suspension of Pete Rose from major league baseball for betting on baseball games, sports leagues traditionally reacted viscerally to any association with gambling.

But a lot has changed in America, and gambling has become much more commonplace and accepted.  When I was in Philadelphia recently the landscape was dotted with signs for casino gambling; the slot machines and table games that used to be reserved for Las Vegas can now be found in more than half the states in America.  Betting on sports events has become so routine that the lines and odds on games and matches are available to anyone with a few strokes of a keyboard, and one of America’s great annual pastimes is participating in the NCAA March Madness pool at the office.  There’s not as much of a taint to gambling as used to be the case.

But, is it good to have an NFL team in Las Vegas, where sports gambling is legal and people can make, or lose, huge sums of money if the point spread gets covered because of a flukey last-minute play?  Is it wise to have professional athletes living in a community where, at a party or charity event, they may hobnob with some well-heeled but shady characters who might drop a hint or two about how the athletes and their teammates could make some easy money without costing their team a game?  Could you envision a scenario where an NFL star has a bad run of luck at the gaming tables and is encouraged to even the score by missing a block or dropping a sure touchdown catch?  I suppose you can argue that pro athletes could be exposed to such characters, and temptations, anywhere in America, but gambling is so deeply engrained and accepted in the Las Vegas culture that I’m not sure other situations are really comparable to pro athletes being based in a place that is often called a “gambling mecca.”

We’ve come a long way since the days when pro sports teams did whatever they could to project a squeaky clean image.  Now we’ll have an NFL team located squarely in the most gambling-oriented town in America.

Ready For Some Baseball

The Midwest has been hit with a typical contrarian March cold blast, and the east coast has been hammered by a snowstorm.  Perversely, the crummy, winter-is-still-with-us weather has made me think that the real spring cannot be far away, and that it’s okay to start thinking about something good that will be coming with the warmer spring weather in just a few days:  baseball.

hi-res-f1085a23cef5182ba9e8ebe79f8a2f31_crop_northAlthough they fell just short of that elusive World Series win, last year was a magical one for the Cleveland Indians.  The team overcame injuries to crucial members of the pitching staff and key position players and, with deft manager Terry Francona holding things together with spit, scotch tape, and baling wire, the Tribe improbably made it to the doorstep of a championship.  With the players hopefully healed, and Edwin Encarnacion set to fill a big hole in the middle of the lineup, Tribe fans are dreaming that this might be the year.  Hey, lightning finally struck the long-suffering Chicago Cubs last year — why can’t it strike the Indians this year?

Spring is the time of dreaming for all baseball fans.  Tribe fans aren’t the only ones who are hoping that the team’s off-season moves have put the right pieces in place, that the player who had the unexpected great year last year wasn’t a fluke, and that the minor league phenom will step up and produce in the big leagues.  It’s all part of the time-honored baseball process that has been part of America’s National Pastime for more than 100 years.  The baseball fans who are dreaming and hoping about their teams today are just new links in a very long chain.

Let’s play ball!

 

Nascar In The Age of Trump

If there’s one sport that I would associate with our new President, it’s Nascar.

Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump like ballcaps with printed messages.  Both Nascar and the new President like to throw in the random commercial plug here and there.  Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump need a lot of help from their pit crews.  And both Nascar and Trump appeal to older, rural white voters.  It’s no surprise that, last year, one of the Nascar execs endorsed Trump for President.

AP NASCAR TEXAS AUTO RACING S CAR USA TXSo it seems like a counterintuitive cultural disconnect that, with Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office, Nascar is really struggling — but that’s the case.  Ratings for Nascar broadcasts have been cut almost in half since 2005.  Racetrack owners have torn down sections of bleachers at their tracks due to declining attendance, but the remaining stands still aren’t filled.  TV executives are pushing the sport to make dramatic changes to reverse the decline.  And, according to the linked article, even with two years’ notice Nascar wasn’t able to find a new primary sponsor that was willing to pay its asking price and it therefore had to sell the sponsorship and naming rights on the cheap.

Why is Nascar on the downslope?  The article gets into a lot of inside baseball talk, but I think the reality is simple:  it’s boring to watch cars driving around a race track for hundreds of miles, no matter how garishly painted they might be and how many product stickers they might sport.  I’ve never understood Nascar’s appeal for that central reason — and the generations coming behind mine, growing up with Walkmans and cell phones and social media, apparently have even less of an attention span than I do.  When Nascar people are talking about installing wifi at the racetracks, that tells you all you need to know about the future of the sport.  People just aren’t willing to sit in the stands for hours, drinking beer and hoping for some aggressive driving on the turns and an exciting crash now and then.  Changing the rules of the races and trying to come up with nicknames that make the drivers more interesting aren’t going to change that central reality.

It would be weird if the term of President Donald Trump saw Nascar once again relegated to the status of a small, regional sport — but that may be the direction in which we’re heading.

Politics, Even On The Links

Rory McIlroy, of Ireland, is one of the best golfers in the world.  Recently he decided to tee it up in a friendly foursome that included President Donald Trump.

Apparently, that’s now forbidden.

rory-mcilroy-and-donald-trumpMcIlroy faced withering criticism on the Twitterzone from people who thought that simply playing golf with the President could be viewed as some kind of endorsement of Trump and his policies.  Our culture has grown so heated that even an amiable Irish guy, who doesn’t vote in American elections, can’t go out for 18 holes of golf with the President without facing a backlash and having people accuse him of “whoring” himself and trying to shame him.

Playing golf used to be viewed as a kind of politics-free space.  Celebrities, comedians, movie stars, and sports figures could hit the links with Presidents, Governors, Senators, and Congressmen without being accused of endorsing their political views.  But it wasn’t just American politics that weren’t transported to the golf course, either.  Gary Player was a beloved player in America and elsewhere, even though he hailed from South Africa during its apartheid era.  And golfers freely played in international competitions without people trying to ban them because their home countries enforced repressive policies or weren’t viewed as sufficiently following the prevailing political views of the day.   The golf course was a kind of sanctuary where people could just play golf.

And this was true even at the local level, where people playing in club tournaments or outings might detest the views of the people they’re paired with — but they play with them anyway, and treat them cordially and in the spirit of friendly competition.  It’s one of the great things about golf.

It’s just too bad that the concepts of tolerance and sportsmanship and getting away from the hurly-burly of the world while you’re out on the course aren’t shared by more people who apparently must view everything through a political lens, and hold everyone to rigid standards of acceptable political behavior.  When somebody can’t go out and just play golf with the President without getting ripped as a turncoat, it’s a sad statement.