One reason I loved Jim Rome is Burning, back when it was on the ESPN family of networks, was that he defied all the conventions that defined ESPN as a whole, and consequently, it seems like all their shows tow the game line, albeit to different extents. It’s one reason I expanded my cable package for CBS Sports, so that I would be able to watch his new show, Rome. Rome interviews major newsmakers, regardless of whether or not their sports are on that particular network, and whether or not the network likes that particular sport.
One thing Rome didn’t do was overly buy into Tebowmania, and he still hasn’t, which is something that I find ESPN heavily guilty of. Fortunately, Tebowmania withdrew from Sportscenter a while back, and has steadily been receding from the ESPN family for the past several months, with its last major bastion, ESPN’s First Take, finally being ordered by ESPN’s President to tone down their Tebow talk. The reality is that this was long overdue, and has, at bare minimum, already cost First Take this viewer, since apparently they felt it more appropriate to discuss Tebow and football than the SF Giants winning the World Series, a sin I will never absolve them of.
However, an allegation by former ESPN Radio Host and analyst Doug Gottlieb is that ESPN executives pushed ESPN’s personalities to discuss Tebow as much as possible, as it increased ratings. While I hope it’s not true, it would fit the profile of a network that finds sponsors to fit every possible thing it can, from the actual shows, to trivia games, to analysts discussions, as well as consistently hawking movies that parent company Disney is aiming at the 18-24 male demographic.
The truth is that while ESPN has some of the best sports shows on TV (Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption), as well as the brilliant 30 for 30 film series, they have a bad tendency to squeeze every possible penny they can out of each broadcast. I know that such shows cost money, but I was getting jaded by the commercialization of Sportscenter in 1999, by which time you would hit by no less than seven ads for beer, films (which per the business continually rotate), and other stuff in the broadcast itself, let alone the actual commercials. Now, nearly 14 years later, it is as much a part of Sportscenter as the actual reporting. Fortunately, it is not as prevalent elsewhere, but considering that Sportscenter is the cornerstone on which the ESPN empire was founded, I will always be concerned of such commercialization spreading.
Which brings us to Tebow; although Tebowmania originated elsewhere, I blame Skip Bayless for dragging it into the mainstream at the expense of legitimate sports coverage. ESPN picked up on it and it spread, like a virus, across the airwaves, with only a brave few, like Jim Rome at the time, resisting. It led to the format change on First Take, which in turn led to both long-time anchors leaving, but ultimately few people at ESPN really cared. While it never got firm holding on ESPN.com, I was continually annoyed to find ESPN talking about Tebow, with only the 1:30-3:00 ESPN block in the afternoon a serious respite from it. Now, I’m making it sound worse than it actually was, but not by much; I was surprised at how much Tebowmania slipped into stories where it didn’t belong.
What annoys me is that ESPN is an inherently conservative sports network, in the sense that they still believe in the sport of boxing (which is fading away) and never discuss the UFC or MMA at large; they publicly embrace the BCS, and give fleeting seconds to criticism to it (at least on Sportscenter); they have analysts discussing aspects of the sport that they never had to deal with when they played; for all this, I thought until last year that they adhered to some journalistic integrity. They honestly believed in boxing, and were still faithful to it, one reason why they chose to discuss it at, in my opinion, the expense of ratings. The latest shake-up reveals that they (allegedly) were either (a) greedy or (b) desperate and that’s why we got so much Tebow; they were complicit with their coverage being bogged down in Skip Bayless’s “free Tebow” campaign and Tebowmania; they sent multiple reporters to cover Tebow’s time at Jets’ camp.
What did we all get out of this? I get that covering Tebow’s first press conference with the Jets was important; hell I watched it. It was a major off-season move; a rarity (starting QB getting traded after winning a playoff game). Ultimately, though, everyone knew that Sanchez would start, and Tebow’s lack of participation (in a sense, a reversal from last season) has made him a non-story, although Skip continues his crusade.
The push to now end the coverage comes too late, but it’s still welcome. Between ESPN’s massive power grab in college football, college basketball, and college sports at large, the recent bouts of Tebow-vision, and the departures of many high profile ESPN personalities (many of whom made their names there, and subsequently took their Twitter followers and fanbases with them), ESPN is increasingly in a tight spot; I blame ESPN for the many changes made to the World Series of Poker, none of which I whole-heartily agree with. ESPN is a partner in the Longhorn Network as well. All of this points to a desire to make money overriding journalistic integrity, which I expect from Fox News and MSNBC, but less from ESPN.
ESPN is being threatened now from nearly all sides; the four major sports all have their own networks, and NBC and CBS have started their own as well. The NFL seems quite happy to continue exhorting billions from the major three for Super Bowl rights, and ESPN is continually being strong-armed to stay in the Monday Night Football race, along with the promise of a playoff game (although in all fairness, I’d rather their crew than the NBC back-ups). ESPN seems more content to dominate the college game, but how long can that last? The Grand ESPN Empire is being slowly besieged by enemies who have more dedicated resources, the ultimate cost of being the first major sports-centric network. If they can retain some integrity, they might have a shot; if they make the Tebow mistake, albeit in different form, down the line again, it could be an early sign of their decline.