ESPN's Dog Days

ESPN's traditional catchphrase has always been "The Worldwide Leader in Sports." But nowadays – as it seems to happen every year in June and July, when they seem content to fill "SportsCenter" time pointlessly – its motto seems to become "What Else Are You Going To Watch?"

Bashing on ESPN in the summertime is so easy that it's not even, er, sporting. Although given the fact that the network aired the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" championship over this past weekend, maybe "ESPN Bashing" could be the next big thing in action-packed summer programming.

This week's Newsweek, though, gives me cover with Devon Gordon's piece: ESPN: The Worldwide Cheerleader." Gordon makes the point that the most recent annual ESPN Awards Show (called the ESPY's – get it?) was all that is wrong with the four-letter network:

In a way, the Espys have become an apt metaphor for ESPN. It's a party the network throws for itself and its closest friends. Everyone sits together, news anchors rubbing elbows with All-Stars. It's more business as usual—two crowds that should probably keep their distance, getting a little too cozy instead.
Now the issue of coziness and bias and how ESPN gives air-time to partners like Arena Football and not to the National Hockey League are serious ones, no doubt. (Been there. Done that.) But my main problem is that ESPN – and it's one touched upon in Newsweek as well – just doesn't seem to try when it comes to filling air-time during the summer months. Two summers ago, in an effort to pad their hour-long "SportsCenter" broadcast, they did a special "50 States in 50 Days" segment, based on two assumptions: A) That us viewers didn't know about the sports history of New Mexico, and B) That we wanted to remedy that?

This summer's time-filler makes "50/50" look like Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," as far as sports journalism is concerned. It's a make-believe (there's no other way to put it) tournament of athletes pitted against each other in brackets (a la the NCAA basketball tournament) to find out … Drumroll Please … "Who's Now?"

What does that mean? As far as I can tell, "Who's Now" stands for one or both of the following:

  • Who's Now … Just Mailing It In?
  • Who's Now ... Taking America's Sports Fans Hostage?

    Obviously, ESPN takes that competition in a rout.

    Am I being harsh? I don't think so. "Who's Now" is apparently attempting to find out who the coolest/hippest/("now"-est)/most successful athlete is. And what is their scientific methodology? It's a combination of the consensus of their three "Who's Now" talking heads and then the viewer's vote. Great. About 10 minutes of their signature show being given over to a low-brow popularity contest. Or as Newsweek puts it:

    It's an elimination tournament, purely theoretical, to determine which current athlete is the most "now"—although two weeks into the competition, it's still anyone's guess what exactly "now" means. A panel of experts, including ex-NFL diva Keyshawn Johnson, debate whether, say, the NBA's Dwyane Wade or snowboarder Shaun White is more "now." Viewers vote online, and the winner moves on to face Tiger Woods in the next round. And so on. Everything about the segment is so artificial, from concept to execution, that watching it is like chewing Styrofoam.
    Yes, the summer months are a dead zone when it comes to stories – Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame? Barry Bonds! Who's the best NFL Free Agent Pickup? – but there are some stories that can be done, if ESPN felt like digging beneath the surface.

    Why doesn't ESPN do a follow-up on "Game of Shadows" to make sure that all the sports fans weighing in on Barry Bonds' suspected steroid use have the facts?

    Why not take a look at college sports budgets? Discuss Title IX – where a school has to give a certain ratio of scholarships to female athletes?

    Why not discuss different training regiments used by different successful sports stars, to educate young athletes as to how to maximize their ability?

    Why not ask about baseball's antitrust exemption?

    Why not a roundtable of Deadspin-esque bloggers talking about the kookiest, pop culture-est sporting stories of the day? (My kingdom for a minor league baseball promotion of the day! Like "Toilet Paper Appreciation" at my beloved Hagerstown Suns.)

    And lastly – dare I ask it? – why not just cut "SportsCenter" down to a half-hour for the summer months? If there's not enough "there" there, don't insult your viewers with time-wasters like "Who's Now?"

    Maybe ESPN needs an injection of new blood and ideas. Maybe they need another competitor – whether it be Fox or Comcast or a new face – to drive them to be more creative and innovative. ESPN's talking heads readily mock athletes like Shaq or Ben Rothlisberger when they find success and get fat and complacent – but it now seems they need someone to get them into shape.