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.


20 Responses to “Follow-up on ESPN”

  1. J,

    Not that I’m backing the WWL, but Francesa talking about blurring
    lines is laughable considering he’s been on Bill Parcells’ jock
    for years…

    Having said that, the fact that John Walsh has to defend “Who’s
    Now ” is a clear indication that ESPN not only hears the
    criticism, but it’s beginning to bother them. The heat they’re
    taking isn’t gonna cause the network to turn the clock back
    to 1992, but it’s go to know that some people are having a
    few sleepless nights.

  2. Des

    You’re right about Parcells and, as I said in the piece, that’s not Francesa’s only problem in this arena. I think what Francesa can say is that there are no commercially-motivated conflicts of interest for him, for whatever that’s worth. One of the things that was interesting about the exchange between Francesa and Walsh was that ESPN would be so sensitive to criticism, a point Francesa kept bringing up during their conversation.

  3. If Alba’s in I’m watchin!!

    Jeff Gordon beat out Barry Bonds. That’s the most laughable shit ever! That speaks volumes about the pyschopathic racial personality…”I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…I’m consumed by you, I’m consumed by you…I hate you…I don’t see you…You’re irrelevant…I hate you…I hate you.”

    If you voted for Jeff Gordon, you need a rubber room.

    That Yankee deal had dog shit on it from Day 1…$100 million is pennies – and that was an absolutely absurd estimate. Can you imagine if Bloomberg’s financial people phukked up like that on the corporate side…they’d be panhandling in the South Bronx by lunch. There are no mistakes here – only attempts at plausible deniability.

  4. j,

    IMO, no one saw the backlash that ” Who’s Now ” would create,
    certainly not ESPN. And while they know deep in their hearts
    that it stinks, they still have to defend it. Now it would be
    easy for me to go off on a tangent about ethics and integrity,
    I also realize that they’ve got to eat too. But I wonder what
    would I do in that situation?

  5. ESPN’s coverage of the NFL couldn’t be much worse. NOW is abysmal, but the coverage of the league is so bad, it’s unbearable. For the past few years, it has been impossible to watch a single NFL related show without some significant mention of Terrell Owens and/or the Dallas Cowboys. Owens is a tremendous talent but he is not the premier receiver in the league. The Cowboys are “America’s Team” and will always generate some buzz – but this predilection with the mundane is precisely why ESPN ALWAYS MISSES hot stories in the NFL.

    The Saints didn’t get any love until the season was over. If you suffered through their terrible broadcasts (Sunday’s were atrocious), you wouldn’t have known the Saints had an actual team until AFTER the Saints beat the Cowboys. If you’d been following the Saints all year, you would have known they were going to kick the Cowboys ass. There are so many examples – but they have too many former players working with narrow perspectives.

    Michael Irvin (Don’t Let the Door Knob Hit Ya…) talked only about receivers and players from the U. Mark Schelereth talks only about the offensive line. That mediocre bastard Jaworski talks about nothing but “points in the passing game.” There are 32 teams in the league…there are tons of players and families and friends and foundations and trials and tribulations and more…there are ways to break down the game that amount to more than hissy fits between Jaws and Merrill Hoge. Sean Salisbury needs another gig.

    Channel 28 – volume off…

  6. Des-
    (Great follow-up, J)
    “They’ve got to eat too”?! The WWL owns the sporting world and is in the unique position to mold sports as we know them through the television and print mediums.

    That ESPN wants to stoop to “Who’s Now” and overexposure of its “face people” has less to do with “eating” than it does the manner in which they want to be perceived as the entertainment industry looks for the next cross-over people through which they can promote their movies, TV programs, etc.

    Rap stars become movie stars, movie stars host their own TV programs… now, that crossover thing turns its eyes to the athlete – and ESPN wants to be first there, too.

  7. Temple,

    And it’s not just football. Check out Baseball Tonight,
    with ” I’m not a General Manager, I just play one on TV ”
    Steve Phillips, the idiocy of John Kruk, and the incoherent
    Eric Young. The NBA, with Uninformative duo of Greg Anthony
    and Tim Legler, to say nothing of the guy with the middle
    inital A. BTW, back to the NFL, you forgot about Mike Ditka.
    On ESPN Radio last season, his weekly rants about Randy Moss
    were so tiresome, I had to switch to Fox.

  8. Great followup, J.
    Deford notes that while celebrity-sports cross-over is not new (think Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio) it certainly has intensified in recent years

    Do you think this has something to do with the influence of Deadspin on the internet (and Bill Simmons as their most read columnist), and so ESPN felt they had to “compete” with that, instead of focusing on their competitive advantage, i.e. reporting sports news. It’s sort of like the NY Times deciding to compete with the NY Post…

  9. Thanks Des…

    I’ve turned away from baseball over the years because the games don’t make sense. Fundamentally, baseball has to be about two things: the ability to pitch inside AND the ability to throw pitches UP in the zone for strikes. MLB has decided that both of these practices are verboten. Hence, the game is a dysfunctional sham. There are tons of other reasons why baseball sucks ass – but those are my primary reasons. So, given that, its an accident when I stumble across Baseball Tonight – and find exactly what you said.

    You’re correct about the hoops angle as well. Anthony and Legler have zero chemistry and I tend to disagree with their assessments of games, teams and players. It’s an abyss out there. I don’t like Saunders as a studio host for hoops either. It just doesn’t seem like his heart is in it. He’d rather be doing Hockey – and he’d be much better at that. I like Saunders in other capacities, but this isn’t working.

    I find ESPN Radio to be the worst. I recall Eric Kaselias (sp?) referring to Bonds and saying: “He’s just like OJ now.” The context of the discussion was that of an athlete being “convicted in the court of public opinion” in the absence of a legally binding conviction. The problem I had with E.K.K.K.K. was that he was also discussing the buff, but feeble-minded simpleton known as Jason Giambi and didn’t connect him with OJ. Giambi, at the time, was embroiled in this controversy and was withering under the pressure…perhaps his shared “Mediterranean-ness” (with the Greco-racist E.K.K.K.K.) spared him that fate.

    ESPN Radio is also a place for scrubs like Michael Kay to ramp up the invective. Many of these personalities would shiver like leaves if they were compelled to defend some of their rants…but they can hide behind microphones and myths of objectivity. Bottom line, it’s all p*&@# all the time – a dirty game.

    In any case, I don’t need much to tune out.

  10. SML –

    I feel you on that Times-Post thang. Like going to colored pages, bringing the quality of writing down a notch, beefing up the Sports Section, and hiring Jason Blair…

    The Times is a rag. I use it to clean up after my pooch. 🙂

  11. dwil,

    I agree with your viewpoint. I wasn’t trying to be snarky
    with my comments, my point was how many people there have had
    to fake the funk and pimp crap like ” Who’s Now? ‘ and the
    ” Hot Seat ” all the while knowing it’s fluff? i just feel for
    guys such as Bob Ley, who at least tries to be professional.
    Trust me, you and I are on the same page on this subject.

  12. SML-
    No way. ESPN is the WWL for a reason. Don’t you feel that if ESPN acted as, say, what Sports Illustrated was in its hey-day with its journalistic integrity and consistent depth of reportage, that Gawkerspin could exist? Anything like that would be met with derision.

    Never underestimate the power of “the authority” to meld thinking among the masses. Places like your spot and here represent a growing minority of people who actually think about these issues; but we’re a minority nonetheless.

    How do you think this way of “mind in the gutter” thinking arose? Deadspin? And I’m not hating on the Spin. They’re just followers of a certain pre-established popular, largely dumbed-down mindset… hell SML, we’re on the opposite end and the middle of this “other side” – and we’re nothing new, either!

  13. Des-
    No snark was perceived and we have a pretty good feel for where each other stands on various issues…. I was using that to begin make a point (it doesn’t translate well on the Internet or without an explanation first, sorry)…

  14. dwil,

    All good. Given the MTV-ization of the WWL, is there any
    hope of redemption? Do you see how they’ve covered Bonds and
    how they’re now covering Vick as a potential watershed moment
    for change, or will they continue to laugh all the way to hell?

  15. There’s one thing I continue to say where I partially agree with the gotta eat deal. That is, it is difficult to provide an accurate portrayal of anything on television, unless something is covered in a two-hour documentary.

    The HBO Real Sports interview with Sheffield was three hours(!) whittled down to what, about 18 minutes!?

    As long as ESPN shows integrity in the print portions of its media conglomerate, everything is cool. If the print portion follows the televised portion, THEN we have some serious problems.

  16. I agree ESPN crams so much of that extraneous crap into SC that they don’t seem to have time for actual highlights. They have their favorite teams, do I really need to hear more about the Yankees/Sox? or the Cowboys during football season? or the Patriot love year round?

    I rarely watch SC from start to finish anymore, and maybe I am just not timing it right, but I don’t see anything on SC about the NL west, just Bonds. Checking the standings, it appears the NL west is one of the most competitive divisions in baseball… except for Bonds team. I’d like to actually know how the Padres are doing without being forced to go check online. But I do get way too much ‘information’ on Sox/Yankees.

    Football season is all about the Cowboys or Patriots. I hate TO, not necessarily for his actions, but more because anytime he speaks I have to see hours of discourse. I used to wake up Sunday mornings excited to start the football day. I liked OTL and Sportsreporters and NFL countdown. Now I just sleep in, or do yardwork since OTL isn’t enough to put off the yard for.

  17. GrandNubian Says:


    I know exactly what you mean, especially in regards to the NFL. I used to love watching the pre-game shows. But now i’ll just wait until the start of the game (if i’m not actually at the game itself). But even during the game itself, you get the “one-sided” analysis/commentary.

    I wish there was some way I could lose all the analysis and just listen to what they’re saying on the field.

  18. Pistons Fan Says:

    Derek Jeter was outvoted by Sidney Crosby. As much as I dislike baseball and love hockey, even I have to admit that this is garbage.

  19. CJ Scudworth Says:

    Regarding ESPN’s MLB coverage, I believe that every game they’ve televised this year has had one of these seven teams:

    Red Sox

    I don’t recall the Brewers or Mariners being televised at all, and a lot of the west-coast contenders have hardly been on. (Though the Angels play the Tigers on Sunday night.)

    I may be wrong about this, as my painstaking research consists of my memory and about a 45-second web search. Point is, about three-quarters of MLB does not exist to ESPN…

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: