Enough Show Biz; Let's Talk About the Game, Any Game

Media Reviews for Media People: ESPN 'SportsCenter'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- MediaWorks is happy to widen our pool of staffers for Media Reviews for Media People with Larry Dobrow, who plans to write about any darn thing he likes -- or doesn't. Feel free to send him suggestions. Today, Larry risks promotional and sensory overload by watching a full week's worth of "SportsCenter."
Who wants to go antiquing? Anyone?
Who wants to go antiquing? Anyone?

I love sports, to the extent that you need a crowbar and some WD-40 to pry me off the couch on Sunday night (full disclosure: I write a weekly sports column for CBSSports.com). I have disposable cash and I spend it impulsively on anything that's salty, fast, sleek, loud or aggressively dumb. Shiny objects make me giggle. In short, I am ESPN's dream viewer.

And yet I'd no sooner watch "SportsCenter," the network's flagship daily studio show, than spend the weekend antiquing. The show no longer bothers to show me the day's top plays and convey a gaggle of pertinent statistics. No, it feels the need to entertain me, to dazzle me with its showbiz sheen.

I do not want this. I want to know who won and who lost, and how. I'm pretty simple-minded that way. Hence I no longer watch "SportsCenter" unless I'm trapped in a hotel room with a limited cable tier and no internet access.

Back in the day, the show's now-patented mix of highlights and whimsy was a breath of fresh air, especially when compared with the blowhard theatrics of local sports anchors. Guys like Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick were smart and they were cool; picking up on one of their obscure references made your night. You could rehash their catchphrases at bars and bar mitzvahs alike and feel like the hippest guy in the room. Which, of course, you weren't.

In the internet era, however, everyone's a pundit. This has had the unfortunate effect of prompting "SportsCenter" anchors to try eight times as hard to distinguish themselves as personalities with a capital "P." Now, they don't narrate the highlights so much as react to them, throwing out whatever overplayed pop-culture catchphrase that comes to mind. You know, something like, "Kitna drops back, but Umenyiora comes around the end unblocked and, oh my! HE'S FERGALICIOUS!" Or how about: "Cook tries to throw a fastball past Lowell and boom! MILK WAS A BAD CHOICE!"

What you've missed if you haven't checked in on "SportsCenter" since the halcyon days of Kenny Mayne and Rich Eisen: a gradual devolution from a show aimed at sports fans to one aimed at people who like sports -- a huge shift, given the former group's passion and the latter's comparative indifference. You've missed a substantial visual upgrade, courtesy of the company's proactive embrace of high-definition technology, and many headaches as it crammed "SportsCenter" with all the stereophonic whooshing noises and careening graphics that hi-def enables.

Also, and this seems a fairly recent development, you've missed a comparatively subtle tonal shift. The 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" is more newsy and sober-minded, while the 11 p.m. edition borrows from the rollicking faux camaraderie of NFL pregame shows.

Mostly you've missed a barrage of cross-promotional gunk. "SportsCenter" officially became unwatchable a few months back, courtesy of an endless "Who's Now" feature in which the show pitted jocks such as LeBron James and Maria Sharapova against one another in a contest to determine ... well, I'm still not exactly sure what.

"Who's Now" wasn't satisfied with comparing incomparables. No, it pushed the cross-promotion card courtesy of a tie-in with "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" -- which, for the eagle-eyed out there, also has the word "Now" in its title. See? Synergy! For several days, the flick's stars/noted sports pundits Kevin James and Jessica Biel weighed in on questions about Tom Brady's now-ness, Albert Pujols' now-icity and Danica Patrick's now-itude. Poor, sweet ESPN mainstays like Michael Wilbon had to suck it up and play along. This marked the first time I actively pitied a TV personality since Deborah Norville squirmed her way into (and out of) the "Today" co-host seat.

Judging from the 11 hours of "SportsCenter" I watched during a week late last month, which may or may not qualify me for some kind of mental-health subsidy, marketers haven't yet come around to my way of thinking. Nearly every ad category is well-represented during the show; one commercial sequence during a Friday 6:30 p.m. broadcast saw ads for beer (Corona), flicks ("Into the Wild"), cars (Hummer), financial services (Ameritrade) and fast food (Arby's) in swift succession. There aren't too many programs that attract such diversity of advertiser interest.

At the same time, interested marketers ought to be wary of sponsor overload. During the course of 90 minutes, that same Friday show touted Corona, "The Comebacks" and Verizon Wireless among its presenting sponsors, plus Gatorade ("Cooler Talk") and Chevron ("Closing Number") as segment sponsors. I'm pretty sure I missed a few, too. My point? Without paying close attention -- and "SportsCenter" is the default background noise in dorms and locker rooms all over America -- you can't keep track of 'em all. Marketers might want to look elsewhere for undivided attention.

It's become fashionable for self-anointed keepers of the sports-journalism flame, especially those of us who remember ESPN in its making-it-up-as-they-go heyday, to bash the network and its world-takeover designs. I don't buy that line of thinking. ESPN still does an awful lot quite well, especially on the web. For the first time since the days of Howard Cosell's casual racism, "Monday Night Football" has a broadcast team that clicks. The first wave of "E:60," a show built around in-depth features, showed a ton of promise when it wasn't trying to be clever.

But "SportsCenter" has lost me. And given the plethora of leaner options out there -- websites such as FireJoeMorgan.com for sharp-elbowed commentary, ESPN's sibling ESPNews cable network for no-nonsense highlights and its double-awesome bottom-screen stats crawl -- I ain't going backbackbackbackback anytime soon. Boo-yah! Boo-yah! Boo-y... (cough! wheeze!). Whoever killed the "SportsCenter" golden goose has something to answer for, in this life or the next.
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