Watching ESPN’s downfall has been a source of macabre fascination for folks like me, the people who helped bring the fledgling cable sports provider into some kind of must-see prominence in the ‘90s. Now we cheer its present-day downfall.
I remember when I made the switch to ESPN from the nightly local sports broadcast, the guy in the mustache and the cheesy blazer with all the puns and the grainy single-A baseball highlights backed by the school binder graphics. I tuned him out in favor of the expressionless slickness manufactured inside the Oz-like confines of a studio in Bristol all quick-cut/top-10 highlights from around the nation with quippy commentary and fun nicknames to match.
Suddenly, I got a nightly insight into what the Twins were doing and the Chiefs and Penguins and Bobby Rahal for that matter—all within the time it took me to devour an It’s-It. Surely never-ending access, a nation bound together by sports highlights was the answer. I remember hearing about Bill Clinton’s then George W. Bush’s then Barack Obama’s fascination with Sportscenter and thinking, for more than two decades, that somewhere out there I had something in common with POTUS every night around 10 p.m.
Maybe that kind of understated unity was the real appeal of ESPN. Also, there was no politics, no divisiveness. No bitterness or long-winded screeds to be found. No scandal. No lies to cover lies to cover lies. No daily attempt to debase societal norms for personal financial gain …It was just sport, all of it, as a pacifier, as a salve. The multi-cultural/multi-gender ointment to solve what ailed us, or at least enable us to say “wow” for a moment before tucking ourselves in and doing it all over.
For most of America, ESPN’s egalitarian look at the day’s exploits of supermen and superwomen was the perfect capstone to whatever drudgery came before.
So why should people like me cheer the demise of such an inherently good enterprise? The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis’ piece entitled The Worldwide Leader in Schadenfreude does a nice job circling around many of the root causes of ESPN’s current state of failing despite being too-big-to-fail including a kind of warped nostalgia revolt from core viewers like myself who haven’t adapted to changes in programming or personalities mixed with the network’s own tone deaf response to much of their own bonehead contractual moves.
Sports Illustrated’s explanation for ESPN’s demise starts with ridiculous contracts, ($50 billion-plus of them over the next decade) that are both tying down the giant dirigible and turning subscribers off. Though, to be clear, ESPN has yet to raise basic cable subscription rates and their digital content is still free in spite of growing financial concerns.
While all of the above are surface factors as to why former loyalists are either tuning out or cutting the cord, I think the heart of ESPN’s vanishing is the heart of why working sports fans are, well, leaving sport altogether: We no longer have the necessary money or the time to pay attention.
If I were to attempt to quantify the amount that I participate in being an active, paying fan for my favorite teams now as opposed to a decade ago, I would have to do it in terms of how much I pay attention to someone I dated briefly during the same time frame. Do I think about them once in awhile, maybe bask in some memory that strikes me while I’m waiting for deli meat or clipping my son into his car seat? Yes, definitely. But that’s about as far as it goes. I don’t pick up the phone or do a google search (OK, well, maybe sometimes I do a google search) or do much more to explore what that relationship meant. That was then and now there are other things to focus on. And if you asked the other in the equation about me, they’d say, “Same.”
Take my relationship with the Oakland Raiders. I was an Oakland resident in the Jon “Chuckie” Gruden halcyon early ‘00s. The Raiders had a colorful and accessible team and interesting results. I went to three or four home games each year, mostly as a single ticket, sitting well above the spike-and-silver-face-paint festooned Black Hole in the blacked-out confines of Mount Davis.
I was never a fan, but the games were three BART stops from my home and for under $20, I could enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon watching the NFL, live. And that was great.
The team’s run ended on the losing end of the tuck rule, ostensibly kicking off the Patriots’ dynasty and the silver and black’s own decade of futility one snowy January day. In the years to follow, I found something better to do with my time, namely moving out of the region to find freelance and part-time service industry work as regular jobs in media became tougher to come by.
…But Raiders fans stayed die-hard for that time because that’s what Raiders fans do.
Enter Mark Davis with the Sling Blade cut and demeanor. The son of Al pimped out the team to the seediest crew this side of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and inked a deal to relocate the silver and black to Vegas this spring. Davis will profit mightily from an infusion of $750 million in public funding (approx. $354 per Vegas resident coming from an increased tax on hotel rooms—which is already in place to pay for infrastructure, schools and transportation) to build his dream stadium on a barren stretch of cracked desert floor next to McCarran airport.
Davis, like most owners who leverage their success on the backs of taxpayers, should see his team’s valuation rise by $2-$3 billion over the next decade because of the shiny new home and the installed fan base which in theory includes California-based faithful as well as a new wave of greater Las Vegas converts.
The reality is the actual target attendee is the corporate-backed lanyard-wearer. The stadium will be luxury-box rife; see: the office complex stack of suites that hang giant guillotine blade-like over the proles at the home of the San Francisco 49ers of Santa Clara. The non-luxury-seats will be full of hungover conventioneers and hotel comps. Hardly a place for faithful or families to enjoy the game and certainly no room for a casual fair-weather observer like me in the day who simply wants to watch interesting football once in awhile.
Multiply that formula out all over professional sport and there you have the real reason why there is a built-in animosity towards super-corporate-fueled ESPN today. The network that used to make fans feel included, a part of a national, cultural narrative, is now a slick and mega-branded experience for those who’ve been literally grandfathered into marketing jobs with Pepsi, because grandpa owned a distributorship.
The rest of us have long ago left the stadium and tuned out of the highlight show. Can’t afford parking much less PSLs. The middle here has been bored out of fandom just as it’s been left behind in other aspects of life the working class used to enjoy including home ownership, retirement savings, vacation and the promise of higher education. We’re now concerned about stretching to pay for rent, food and clothing and holding our collective breath that the roof doesn’t leak or the car doesn’t crap out or, god forbid, a medical emergency doesn’t rain down from above.
Whether ignored or driven into poverty (or both) the great middle of this country no longer has the means or the time to heed the dah-na-nah dah-na-nah siren call of Sportscenter.
If anything, it’s a painful reminder of all that’s been lost.