Friday, August 7, 2015

Fixing ESPN

The early retirement my wife and I plan to take has been pushed back another couple of months, thanks to a bad week on Wall Street.  Driving the markets lower are poor performances in the broadcasting sector--led by Disney--which this week reported that ESPN is losing subscribers for the first time in its history.  The drop is blamed on so-called "cord-cutters"--people who are ditching cable subscriptions and getting their video services either through satellite or streaming platforms.  I'm not sure why anyone on Wall Street was surprised by this development because any serious sports fan would tell you that ESPN sucks.

It wasn't always this way.  For nearly two decades ESPN was must-watch television.  Big Monday college basketball tripleheaders, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann hosting SportsCenter, NFL Primetime with all of Sunday's highlights (and Fantasy Football numbers) combined to give us all something to look forward to every night of the week.  I always take credit for the explosive growth of ESPN to the five channels it now offers because I was in a Nielsen Ratings family for about a year--and it made up about 90% of my TV viewing.

But now, ESPN executives have decided to focus more on the "Entertainment" part of their name--and less on the "Sports" part.  You are as likely to see an actor, hip hop artist or comedian on SportCenter talking about games as you are "Insiders".  And fast-paced highlight packages have been replaced by fancy 3-D computerized looks at the action "from all angles" like something out of Madden '15. 

There are ways to "save" ESPN from it's own self-destruction--and here are just a few ideas:

1--Dump the NFL-centric focus.  There is nothing like turning on SportsCenter in early March and seeing the "top story" is a change to Mel Kiper, Jr's draft board.  Followed by an update on Tim Tebow's interest in signing with the Eagles, Tom Brady's latest denials on Deflategate, the arrest of another NFL player, who isn't going to throw at the combine, criticism of Roger Goodell's punishment for other players and what free agents are thinking about signing with the Jets before getting to any of the 125 college basketball games played that night.  Focus on the stuff that's actually in-season and your might hold people's attention all year round.

2--Drop the idiots.  This is directed mainly at "First Take" co-hosts Screamin Steven A Smith and Skip Bayless--both of whom have been suspended for insensitive comments targeted at women and other minorities, downplaying the seriousness of domestic and sexual violence and insulting gays and Christians.  Chris Berman and Dick Vitale can be released from their duties as well--as 30+ years of the same schtick has worn thin.  You can also dump the 15-minute segments with the aforementioned celebrities--who only prove that they know nothing about sports.

3--Show baseball games featuring teams other than the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.  Every year in the playoffs there is a "surprise team" like the Kansas City Royals or the San Francisco Giants that catch everyone at ESPN off-guard--mainly because NONE of their games were shown on the network--while every Sawx-Yanks matchup is shown in primetime.

4--Stop pretending that leagues you do not have broadcast rights for don't exist.  The National Hockey League has become persona non grata at ESPN because NBC has the rights to their games.  That means NHL highlights get about four minutes in the eighth segment of SportsCenter every night--and there is no NHL Tonight show--like there is for every other league.

If the folks in Bristol, Connecticut can get to work on making these initial changes, I bet the "cord-cutters" come back.  And then we can get to work on expanding Pardon the Interruption to an hour every night.

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