ESPN has never lacked talent
While the NFL's popularity continues to skyrocket, there is a growing resentment (especially in NHL, MLB and NBA fans) towards the media for its over the top and obsessive coverage of the league. On the surface, it might just seem like petty jealousy from those who are loyal to other sports. Not in this case.
At some point during the last few years, aided mostly by the cable network ESPN, it became necessary to over-analyze every single detail of the NFL. The "Worldwide Leader in Sports" has developed an obsession with the league that has become significantly detrimental to the reporting of other non-gridiron events.
Let's be realistic here. ESPN is a behemoth. It is the driving force of the success (or lack thereof) in every pro sports league on the continent. There really is no other game in town. Certainly there are other sports news outlets, but none with even a tenth of the influence. And this is why I put most of the blame in their lap. By continually overexposing the NFL, It has caused a giant rift in many of its viewers.
Don't get me wrong, ESPN is a top-notch corporation. It's probably the most significant trailblazer in the history of sportscasting. What's most commendable is that even after all these years it still provides cutting-edge and progressive material to its viewers.
I certainly have been impressed to see them take on such squeamish issues as racism and homophobia as it pertains to the athletic world. Most corporations would have laid back and played it safe.
Why deal with controversy if it's not necessary?
That's why I have a lot of respect for their business model. That's why I am troubled by the recent change of priorities and the ultimate downgrade it has caused in the quality of their content.
The NFL is riding a giant tidal wave of popularity due to a few different factors. These factors include mismanagement by the heads of other leagues—like Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL.
This is not to say that the NFL does not have its share of problems, most notably a looming lockout after this year. Its just that the league officials have gained a reputation for dealing with issues quickly and forcefully with minimal inconvenience to their fans.
Another key factor for the league's success is its commitment to parity. The league has been brilliant in keeping the playing field level for every team. Every single fan can wake up on opening day with some sort of hope for success in the current year or at least in the near future.
That certainly is not the case in other leagues, where teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Kansas City Royals are doomed to repeat losing seasons year after hopeless year.
But those are all just peripheral reasons. Football's real strength is in the game itself. It's a terrific sport. Its exciting, its violent, its complex, its sprinkled with unpredictability. In all honesty, it may even be my favorite sport. But let's remember that its not the NFL that I am taking issue with, but ESPN's overly-exhaustive coverage
Any viewer of "Mike and Mike in the morning" will tell you that this year has seen the duo remove or skim over almost anything that does not deal with the NFL. Even in the aftermath of LeBron James' iconic "decision," NFL training camp news was still leading on many mornings.
Think about it, ESPN televises Lebron James in a one hour special that ends up changing the face of the NBA. And then after a few days of major coverage, it started getting eclipsed by news and notes from NFL camps. We are talking about King James joining up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on a top six market team (the Miami Heat.)
I know it seemed like there was plenty of coverage to some, but think about how much media Brett Favre recieved for maybe, possibly coming back to play for the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were not even a Super Bowl team the year before, losing to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game.
(Right now, it would be an incredibly challenging, if not impossible task, for the Vikings to win the NFC North or wildcard. So much for all that media.)
Why did Brett Favre's possible retirement get more press than the aforementioned super squad?
It's not just Mike and Mike that have excessively embraced the game. It's every show. It's the whole network.
It's really a shame to see, because I'm an admirer of Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg. Their show might just be the most insightful sports-themed program on television or radio. I only wish they didn't have to spend 80 percent of their time on the subject of the NFL now. Even as the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants do battle in the World Series, it's still dwarfed by discussions of the details of Brett Favre's sexting fetish, or his new chin stitches.
It's an enormous waste of talent. I could go down the list of the network's other shows (First Take, Sportsnation, Sportscenter etc.) and the results would be the same. Too much NFL discussion (even when there's no real news), and a lack of time given to the lead stories in other sports.
Does anyone still care about the NHL?
ESPN certainly doesn't. All the extra pigskin talk these days has virtually eliminated the sport of hockey from any sort of acknowledgement. Their coverage is completely bare-bones and doesn't really go much further than a recap of the game and a box score. (I do realize that there is a late-night NHL show that is hardly ever on).
This is a sore subject to many. Growing up in the '90s and early 2000s, I remember being able to loosely follow the league via Sportscenter and occasional panel discussions. Now it has been virtually shut out from any exposure. Ask any current fan of the NHL for their feelings on the network's hockey coverage. But when you do, be ready for a passionate diatribe on how ESPN has abandoned them.
That sounds a bit childish, but there is actually a lot of validity to it. The era of round the clock football coverage coincided almost exactly with the beginning of reduced hockey coverage. I guess something had to go.
Of all the sports, the NHL has suffered the most as a result of the extended NFL coverage. I still remember watching the morning shows the day after the Chicago Blackhawks had just captured the Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers in a thrilling OT clincher. It was their first cup in 49 years, and their turnaround made for an inspiring story.
Think of the stories that were ripe for exposure. Marian Hossa makes the Cup finals three years in a row and finally takes it home. The team was captained by a superstar who is barely 22 years old in Jonathan Toews. Then there is the made-for-the-movies moment that equally young superstar Patrick Kane created when he beat Michael Leighton on one of the stranger goals in the history of the finals.
But the game was only briefly mentioned a few times in each program. And during those times, it was easy to tell that no one had spent any time doing basic background research.
I realize that after the hockey strike, the sport lost much of its popularity. I also realize that ESPN doesn't have a contract to televise their games either. Of course there would be a marginal drop-off in exposure. But thus far, it has virtually removed any traces of the sport.
It's a shame, too, considering how exciting and evenly matched the NHL has become lately. Couple that with a deep pool of potentially marketable stars (Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, etc.) and it suddenly looks like the network could be making a mistake. Just a small amount of coverage would go a long way.
But if ESPN feels differently and allows the NFL to take any more exposure from pro hockey, then its a very real possibility that the next time you go out to eat, Barry Melrose may be waiting on your table.
Could I be overstating my point just a little?
After all, it just makes business sense to feature popular sports more prominently. That is correct to a degree. But consider the unique news cycle of the league. Sunday and Monday (and occasional Thursdays) are the only game days. Of course its acceptable to devote an inordinate amount of time discussing previews, giving recaps, and showing highlights before and after game days.
As long as there are football stories that appeal to more than just bookies and fantasy players, they should be reported, no matter what day they break. In general, around Wednesday of each game week, the whole sport devolves into injury updates, quarterback controversies and fluffy feel-good biographical articles. Here's where to trim the fat a bit.
Unfortunately, every single tiny angle of every single questionable NFL story seems to be covered ad nauseum for hours upon hours at a time. Its the slog of an entire week of fantasy sports features, injury reports, gambling lines and updates on Brett Favre's bowel movements that have created this nails-on-the-chalkboard situation.
I know it's only anecdotal, but I have spoken to plenty of other knowledgeable sports fans who also are distressed by this annoying trend. There are no stats and figures for verbiage given to sports subjects. But it's really no secret.
In fact, on more than a few occasions I have seen personalities on the network comment derisively on the endless Brett Favre retirement hoopla. This year's retirement version 3.0 coverage was so endless and boring that I'm shocked that no one in Minnesota slipped into a coma. Weren't there more interesting stories to tell.
Can't someone just keep tabs on that in the background while expanded airtime coverage is given to other stories in other sports with actual developments occurring?
Does everyone remember the "Breaking News" report that featured a live video feed of Brett Favre's plane landing at the Minneapolis airport?
Then came the O.J. Simpson treatment. A news helicopter was dispatched to video tape his ride home. Not a proud moment for ESPN in my eyes.
I know many people will simply read this and say to themselves, "It's just ESPN catering to the sport that can make the most money for them."
Of course ESPN is not stupid. Far from it, in fact. They have certainly heard the criticism. But there is no official response. Whatever business model they are aspiring to appears to rely heavily on the National Football League. I hope they make room for other topics as well.
One final point. I mentioned earlier that ESPN basically is the only game in town when it comes to national sports reporting. That is a pretty fair statement. Of course there are other outlets. However, they are minuscule in comparison.
In the past, ESPN has wielded its power to actually change the course of the sports world. Many years ago (1995), the network hyped up the X-Games, which had been invented and sponsored internally, and it became a success. Now it's a staple in the sports world. All because ESPN hyped it relentlessly and demanded that we watch it.
So not only can the network report on the news, it has such a massive influence that it can actually play a part in the creation of the news stories. Basically, we will watch whatever ESPN puts on. Time to share the spotlight with those less fortunate sports.
My challenge to ESPN is to include more coverage of the NHL, NBA, MLB, and anything else of moderate interest while reducing the amount of time slated for football. Its getting a little out of control. Im sure there is a happy medium somewhere. Time to find it.
For Chicago and national sports musings, follow me on Twitter: @ChiBdm (http://www.twitter.com/chibdm)