Follow-up on ESPN
Following up on my post from the end of last week, Newsweek wasn’t the only major media outlet to question the direction of ESPN this past week. Sports Illustrated had a satirical send-up of the much-maligned “Who’s Now?” series. I can’t find the piece on-line, but three quick samples here:
1) on how the panelists were picked: “based on such factors as who was not on vacation, you selected three Nestor Chylaks of NOW-ness. At rehearsals, I’ve heard, panelists received mild electric shocks whenever they said either apples or oranges. It worked! Now 12,000 to 14,000 times a day, one can view a kind of Algonquin Round Table minus the tiresome wit.” (Chylak, by the way, was an MLB umpire from 1954 to 1978).
2) on how the “winners” of each round are selected: “People say Internet voting isn’t scientific, but it can tell alot about America. For example, the daylong deluge that lifted Jeff Gordon past Barry Bonds said something about just how many unemployed white people there are out there.”
3) on flaws in the series: “By giving credit for buzzed-about affairs, [the show] unfairly penalizes the competent adulterer.”
To sum up, author Charlie Leerhsen’s conclusion: pull the plug. NOW.
One of the larger issues Who’s NOW touches upon is the growing melding of sports with celebrity culture. And, no network seems more intent on facilitating that process than ESPN. This happens both at a cross-over level – that is, between sports and the entertainment world (the ESPYs being one clear example) and within sports. But, in both cases, that melding is a boon to ESPN’s own people, because ESPN talking heads have themselves increasingly become celebrities, with all the trappings, financial and otherwise, that that entails. Mike and Mike, who are, incidentally, the runaway co-winners of the 2007 National Overexposure Award, exemplify this trend, rubbing elbows with their buddies in the sports world and promoting their insiderism and friendships with many of the people they’re supposed to cover, rather than distancing themselves from those folks.
And, this week, Mike Greenberg found himself on a Who’s Now panel with the actor/comedian Kevin James as well as the actress Jessica Biel. You can only imagine the insight that flowed from that threesome.
Thanks to the blog, Doubt About it, there’s this analysis from SI’s Frank Deford of the celebrity-sports fusion. Deford notes that while celebrity-sports cross-over is not new (think Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio) it certainly has intensified in recent years. As has been much remarked, Eva Longoria probably got more camera time during the NBA finals than any player on the court, and her wedding to Tony Parker was THE wedding of the summer of 2007. And, David Beckham’s imminent arrival to make America safe for soccer includes constant exposure for his wife, Posh Spice. As Deford dryly notes, while Beckham is a “lovely” guy, taking him seriously when he says America is ready for soccer is a stretch:
“soccer people on the incipient success of soccer are like President Bush on victory in Iraq. It’s always just around the corner. There’s no doubt, as current events show, that sports has never been more intertwined with celebrity. But Posh and Becks are, I’m afraid, just the American soccer surge.”
All of this preening, look-how-cool-we-are because-we’re hobnobbing-with-stars by ESPN personalities adds to the perception of the network as inane, unserious and self-satisfied, and only interested in self-promotion.
Speaking of which, this past week, Mike Francesa also took a shot at Who’s Now. I missed his initial editorializing on the subject, but on Friday, ESPN’s editorial director John Walsh called WFAN to defend the show, and he and Francesa spoke for twenty minutes or so.
Walsh said he was calling in order to provide some “context” for the provenance of Who’s Now, and hoped that Francesa would allow for some balance and fairness in discussing its merits and shortcomings. Francesa and Walsh appear to be old friends, and the conversation itself never got heated, but Francesa reiterated his major criticisms of Who’s Now, which he sees as part and parcel of a larger decline at ESPN:
“it’s again where we’re headed…if you are a sports person who wants to see highlights, you have to go to ESPN news because you can’t go to sports center because so much of sports center is inane it takes you so long to get the information…you’ve spent so much time patting yourselves on the back, or promoting your own people or putting nonsense on there, there’s no sports there anymore….ESPN spends an awful lot of time now trying to promote ESPN and tell everyone how wonderful ESPN is rather than just be the vehicle of reporting.”
Francesa also observed that there has been an “erasure” of the line between ESPN sportscasters on the one hand and athletes on the other, that “it’s not adverserial at all, it’s very fraternal actually.” For his part, Walsh defended ESPN by noting that Outside the Lines is a terrific show that does serious journalism which prompted Francesa to ask why, of OTL is so good, and the network is proud of it, that they bury it in a time slot that ensures no one will watch it.
Walsh had one touche moment – when he pointed out that everyone has relationships in the business that they cultivate, including Francesa himself. This is certainly true – Francesa and Russo can be bulldogs when they are dealing with a sports figure they don’t like, such as the hapless former Knicks’ GM Scott Layden, who must have dreaded his regular appearances on their show. But, in other instances, such as their weekly Joe Torre reports, or their painfully sycophantic, and not infrequent interview with former New York Mayor and Yankee-fan extraordinaire Rudy Giuliani, the normally independent-minded duo lose all of their critical faculties. Their interviews with sports commissioners – David Stern, Gary Bettman and Bud Selig have each appeared numerous times on their show – are also short on real scrutiny of those individuals’ claims about their sports finances and the commissioners supposedly single-minded devotion to their fans’ interests.
And, while we’re on the sbject of lack of scrutiny, to return to a subject I wrote about earlier last week, Neil De Mause wrote recently in The Village Voice that the taxpayers’ subsidy for the new Yankee Stadium is ballooning. Originally pegged at a “modest” $135 million, De Mause says that according to a new study, the price tag to the good people of New York may be headed north of $600 million:
Now that all the bills are starting to come in, Good Jobs has released a new report, “Insider Baseball,” and with it a new estimate of the cost to taxpayers: $663.5 million. Not only is that nearly five times what the mayor claimed back in 2005, it would represent the most costly public stadium subsidy in U.S. history—surpassing the $611 million that Washington, D.C., is spending on a new stadium for the Nationals, a deal that even one of the District councilmembers who voted for it said she wished she could “throw into the ocean.“
When ESPN’s done with Who’s Now, maybe they can organize an interactive “tournament” pitting the biggest stadium rip-offs in America against one another, with Stuart Scott hosting a round-table to include Donald Trump, George Steinbrenner and Jessica Alba. I bet that would be a ratings winner.