The Bell Tolls In Bristol

If, at any time in the last several years, you invested heavily in ‘ESPN/schadenfreude’ futures, then last week was the moment when you became a very wealthy person.

I, of course, preferred to wait a decent period to comment on last week’s layoffs, out of respect for those…

Oh, who am I kidding? I was laughing my ass off over “The Worldwide Leader” and its problems. Not so much over the people laid off; most of them deserved better, I’m sure, and for the ones who were just doing the job of covering their beats–like Ed Werder or Ethan Sherwood Strauss–I have varying degrees of actual respect. They weren’t the ones who were creating the clown show; they just happened to be the ones who paid for it.

No, the main theme is a simple one: ESPN brought a lot of its woes upon itself–and if you tuned in to last night’s Sunday Night Baseball–while the ink on the pink slips was still not dry–you could see exactly why the network is having its problems.

The DFR: MediaHeads exploded in Bristol, CT last week, and not just because of the Reaper made a swift passage through the halls of ESPN headquarters. Undoubtedly, there was also a wave of mini-explosions throughout the building because this weekend saw a meeting between the most primary of “The Worldwide Leader’s” house teams, the Boston Red Sox, and the organization’s new favorite adopted sons, the Red Sox West, a.k.a. your–or rather, their–World Champion Chicago Cubs.

No doubt, everyone caught the network’s tender, lovingly-crafted coverage of Chicago’s opening night ceremonies a few weeks back; at the very least you probably saw the promotions for the event, featuring none other than everyone’s favorite young retired person, former Cubs catcher “Grandpa” David Ross. Funny, I don’t recall ESPN covering the ring delivery ceremony when the Giants broke their own long–albeit puny by comparison–championship drought. Nor, I suspect, did a similar day in Kansas City merit much attention slightly more than a year ago.

“…if ESPN were still providing something essential to the sports fans in TV Land, they wouldn’t be getting hit as hard as they are.”

But that night in the “Friendly Confines”? Oh, boy, that sure was a party to attend. The house teams–even the adopted, non-I-95 corridor ones–are always on the agenda for the Connecticut Clown College. So too with this past Sunday’s national broadcast from Fenway.  It was inevitable that ESPN would be covering the Cubs’ game in Boston, just as the network has dutifully covered, and will continue to dutifully cover, every game they can of every Yanks-Sawx series, wall-to-wall and coast to coast, world without end, amen.

It may be an accident that one event (Cubs vs. Red Sox at Fenway) followed so closely in time to the other event (the layoffs at ESPN), but they are not unrelated. It’s not mere coincidence that one and the other are so closely juxtaposed. Because, in fact, the one is a big part of what has created the other.

The primary cause cited for ESPN’s declining fortunes is cord-cutting; they’re losing viewers as subscribers move away from paying bills to cable companies–bills that can only be described as fiscal acts of brutality at this point. Too many people in this country have lost too many good-paying jobs and too much personal wealth to keep shelling out such huge sums for such terrible service–and ESPN is getting pounded because of that.

But–and this is a big ‘but’–if ESPN were still providing something essential to the sports fans in TV Land, they wouldn’t be getting hit as hard as they are.

Alas–they are providing no such thing. “The Worldwide Leader” is, in fact, increasingly providing a narrower and narrower view of the sports world.

They’re forced to cover teams outside their home turf when the playoffs arrive, because as long as the Warriors or Rockets, or the Blue Jays or Giants, or even the Falcons or Broncos, stay in the hunt in the postseason, they have to show up on ESPN’s radar.

But during the long span that is the regular season? You’re just getting huge, heaping helpings of the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Cavs (Cleveland’s close enough, as long as LeBron is around), the Celtics–even the Knicks, who showed up on the network’s NBA schedule way more often than was merited this past season. More and more, it’s the house teams, all the time, with only special guest star appearances by everybody else.

And that’s the crux of the matter: at this point, ESPN has become a regional network–no matter how much they try to pretend to the contrary. Yet, they have up till now been staffed like a national network. Maybe even an international network. “Worldwide Leader” indeed.

So will the layoffs help the network? Not if ESPN doesn’t change its on-air behavior and return to being the more ecumenical channel it was in the past.

The problem is, at this point that past is so long ago that there’s a good chance that no one left at the network actually knows anything about it. All of the efforts being made at ESPN to reinvent the network are being carried out, for the most part, by the same upper management who helped usher the network into its current situation in the first place. Nor did I notice many names among those let go who could be described as the biggest clowns under the Connecticut Clown College’s circus tent. That doesn’t bode well for future improvements to the product.

The good news in all this: we as sports fans don’t actually need ESPN anymore. Back in the day, I used to watch ESPN a lot; nowadays, unless it’s specific game coverage–mostly during the postseason–I generally don’t bother tuning in. (The lone exception being PTI, which I continue to watch regularly as my go-to summary of the day’s headlines–even when the show and its [often absent] hosts try my patience.) SportsCenter? Unwatchable. Baseball Tonight? NFL Countdown? Just about any other show on the network’s schedule? Blather, blather, blather. Don’t need it.

And it’s not like there aren’t options elsewhere in the channel lineup. The other major players–NBC, CBS, FOX–have all jumped in with sports channels of their own. Local channels cover so many of the hometown team’s games now that there’s hardly even time left to watch national games. Also, every league has its own network now, where they provide their own coverage of the around-the-league scene. (Not that those channels don’t come with problems of their own…) And if you’ve got a few extra bucks in your pocket, you can subscribe to various league-pass packages and watch all the games you want–even if you don’t have cable TV. (Internet service required, of course.) Who needs ESPN?

Maybe those people who got laid off need ESPN. Perhaps. But I suspect the good ones, the talented ones–the no-nonsense, hard-working, do a good job ones–will land on their feet somewhere. We, the viewers, in our various somewheres, are in the best positions of all: we can take it or leave it, same as we’ve been doing for years now. And without a better reason to take it, it will just be more and more leaving from here on out. ESPN had better figure that out soon, or soon enough there won’t even be anything left to take.


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