The Big Problem with Sports Leagues Owning Their Own Networks
by Scott Long
Many seem to spend too much of their focus on critiquing ESPN just because they are currently the big boys on the block. Sure they have their fair share of Around the Horn douches who give the concept of journalism a horrible name, but ESPN is F-ing 60 Minutes compared to what goes on at the NFL Network. I don't know if the network has a deal with the NFL players union, but the channel is littered with ex-jocks who shouldn't be allowed to give any opinion besides where is the best Big and Tall men's shoppe to buy a pin-striped suit. The NFL Network is like the Love Boat for retired players, giving the washed-up an opportunity to be seen again. There are a few exceptions to this rule, (Rich Eisen, first and foremost), but nowhere is there a Cris Collingsworth, Ron Jaworski, or Howie Long to actually give an opinion with some depth to it.
I know the NFL Network would state, otherwise, but it is bankrolled by the league, so what do you think the odds are that someone is really going to go after the owner of the Lions or Cardinals? The Ford's and Bidwell's have continually put dismal products on the field, but there will be no serious documentary of this at the NFL Network. While ESPN might drop a show like Playmakers because the NFL doesn't like it, most of their broadcasters won't shy away from tough topics. The NFL Films stuff is great, but for game analysis, I wait for HBO's Inside the NFL.
The Big 10 Network is the newest model in the cable sports transition, as it is 24-hour programming of just one conference. If you think the NFL Network is limited in the scope it will offer up, think about how neutered a college sports network owned by a conference will be. Sure the movie PCU might have been a bit over-the-top (though Jeremy Piven was at his Bill Murray best in this underrated film), there is no place ruled by special interests groups more than our state universities. Considering the problems universities have with binge drinking I'm not surprised that the Big 10 Network is refusing beer sponsorship, but wait until some Feminist T.A.* starts an angry letter campaign over accepting GoDaddy.com commercials. *T.A. stands for Teaching Assistant, not for what you probably first thought.
Here's a quick review on the Big 10 Network, since I'm one of the few who watched it during it first weekend. Former ESPN anchor Dave Revsine was a good hire for the face of the network, as he is articulate and witty. He also has a good chemistry with one of his partners at the desk, Gerry DiNardo. The third man on the set, former Illinios RB Howard Griffith is pretty stiff, however. The channel will be similar to the NFL Network in that it will succeed when it has original programming (like the historic Michigan upset), but will suffer the other times because it doesn't have anyone willing to have an edgier opinion.
It is amazing how many college football games are on television now. ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNU, Fox Sports, TBS, CSTV, and other regional sports networks are all covering the sport. Now do you think there are enough quality analysts to cover this many games? Not even close. The lack of depth in college football color analysts is similar to major league starting pitching, as expansion has killed both professions. This lack of talent just makes it more puzzling of why Trev Alberts is stuck broadcasting to hundreds at a time at CSTV, when he is one of the 10 best analysts in sports television.
ESPN is at its peak right now. My guess is it will begin a slow decline, as major sports leagues create channels to keep more and more of its own product. MLB begins its own channel in 2009. How many of you think that it will be any better than what the other sports leagues networks have shown so far? The potential for the channel is great, just because it would have so much live programming (162 game schedule), but the hiring of Harold Reynolds tells me a lot about the direction it will go.
The 3 things I would recommend to MLB is:
Hire someone from NFL Films to start putting together some quality documentaries.
Hire away Ken Rosenthal from Fox or Peter Gammons from ESPN, as they are the 2 writers who bring automatic credibility to any show they are part of.
Create a show that features contributing writers from Baseball Prospectus.
My guess is that these things won't happen, as MLB has not exactly been innovative in its marketing of the game. Why do I think that most of the future hosts of MLB's channel will be company men, with voices like they went to the Chet Waterhouse School of broadcasting? So the next time you watch Baseball Tonight and get frustrated at something John Kruk or Steve Phillips says, keep in mind that the MLB channel is coming and I'm predicting it will be more like the Eric Young or Tino Martinez hour.
High definition sure is great, but the future of sports television looks to be on the path to decline, at least in the broadcast booth.