I Hate ESPN (Part Deux) (Originally Posted June 20, 2004)

In an earlier blog, I wrote about my dislike of ESPN’s over-promotion of its programming. Well, it’s time to go over to SportsCenter and blast certain anchors and gimmicks.

When ESPN first started SportsCenter, it’s mission was to provide highlights from that night’s events. It has achieved this so well that it has practically rendered the local three minute sports report obsolete. It has also sparked imitators and killed those same imitators. Can you remember the National Sports Report from Fox Sports Net? How about CNN Sports Tonight? All have gone by the wayside, but SportsCenter still remains.

This program became Must See TV. During its growth in the 1980’s, Chris Berman, Tom Mees, Bob Ley, George Grande, Gayle Gardner and Greg Gumbel all became household names. And when Chris Berman was told to stop giving nicknames to players during baseball highlights, there was an uproar, forcing management to take back its order.

The show continued to expand. When Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were teamed on the 11 p.m. SportsCenter, its ratings took off. It was during this time that the philosophy of SportsCenter began to change. At first, it was the highlights that were the star of the show. But with Dan and Keith, the focus changed. They became the stars of the show and they exchanged witty banter. Their jokes were funny. Even obscure references were funny. Dan and Keith, Keith and Dan became so big that they co-authored a book.

All good things have to come to an end. The pair were split up as Keith left the show and ESPN amid a contract dispute.

But ESPN management, namely John Walsh, decided that SportsCenter needed more than just highlights. The show needed some tweaking. So anchors were hired who not just sportscasters, but entertainers. In came anchors who had schticks. Rich Eisen was actually a stand-up comedian. Stuart Scott had his hip-hop speak (although ESPN management did try to tone him done). Jon Anderson had his little catchphrases.

As the 21st Century came in, SportsCenter tried other nuances. There’s the “Budweiser Hot Seat” where a player or coach is interviewed. What about “Fact or Fiction” where two ESPN analysts have a contrived argument over what is real or not real about a certain issue. But the newest gimmick is “Heresay” where Kenny Mayne hosted a game show within “SportsCenter” where teams of two were pitted against each other. The results were reported as if it was an actual athletic competition. Did this have anything to do with the US Open or the French Open? No, but it was another chance for ESPN to sell the franchise (this time to Sears) and have big name players on SportsCenter. And some of these gimmicks take more than 5 minutes to complete.

But the worst offenders are the smart-alecky, schticky, smart-ass anchors who give one-liners as if they are auditioning for a late night talk show (Actually, Craig Kilborn of the “Late Late Show” on CBS was actually a SportsCenter anchor before becoming the original host of “The Daily Show” and he was very good on SportsCenter). Jon Anderson says, “Say hello to my little frien”, the famous line from “Scarface”, whenever a home run highlight is aired. There’s Stuart Scott’s “Can I get a witness from the congregation.” When Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann did their catchphrases, they just came out naturally, “Biscuit in the Basket,” “The Whiff,” “En Fuego,” “Guhh”. They were all funny. But now, the catchphrases by these comedian wannabes are not funny, clever or even good.

And the focus of SportsCenter no longer is on the highlights, but the features, gimmicks and insignificant banter between the anchors. And during the SportsCenter anchor audition of an abortion known as “Dream Job”, the anchor wannabes all tried to be cute, but did not seem to be knowledgeable on sports at all.

What used to be necessary viewing for sports fan now has become a mere parody of itself. SportsCenter is not just for informing the viewer, but it has to entertain, attract the youngest viewer possible and dumb down the highlights.

When John Walsh leaves the ESPN Kingdom, maybe the sports fan will see a SportsCenter that gets back to basics, breaking sports stories, giving highlights and scores and informing the fans, but that will not happen for a long time. It is the hardcore sports fan who suffers.

And so it goes ….