Friday, September 10, 2004

ESPN's silver anniversary showing tarnish

—Originally published 9.10.04

Michael Jordan took the National Basketball Association -- and professional basketball as a whole -- to previously-unseen heights during his near two-decade reign in the sport.

But he may have ruined it at the same time. Look no further than the U.S. Olympic basketball team comprised of a bunch of MJ wannabes. Everybody wants to run and jump and, most importantly, dunk like Mike, but very few want to work on the rest of their games like Mike. Thus, the NBA product looks less and less like basketball every season.

The same could be true of ESPN, the unquestioned worldwide leader in sports, because now everybody wants to be like Stuart Scott.

As it puts the wraps on an obscenely self-congratulatory "silver anniversary" year celebrating 25 seasons on the air, the cable sports giant -- much like the NBA -- is in freefall when it comes to the quality of its product.

Thanks in large part to the success of anchors like Scott on ESPN's signature show, the omnipresent "SportsCenter," the network is now nearly unwatchable.

Scott and former "SportsCenter" anchor Craig Kilborn debuted in the mid-1990s. Predecessors such as Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick and Chris Berman were clever in their telecasts, but Scott and Kilborn took the role of ESPN TV personality to another level.

In high school at the time, my buddies and I used to recite the duo's new catch-phrases every day. They were funny, fresh and unlike anything we'd heard on the sports channel -- or any other sportscast, for that matter. Who other than Kilborn could pull off, "He's breathless in the zone!" or "He's not your 'Vydas, he's not my 'Vydas, he's Arvydas!" referring to then-Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.

Scott worked in any number of pop-culture references, even singing a little tune while running through a highlight, and always gave a nice "boo-ya!" once per episode.

Kilborn obviously has uncommon comedic talent and thus didn't stay long as a lowly sports anchor; he moved on to host "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central and just put the wraps on his successful late-night talk show for CBS.

But Scott is still at ESPN, and his act is wearing thin. How many more times can we listen to him yell, "boo-ya!" without going crazy? And worse yet, his flamboyant style has seeped out into the entire network -- and not just with painful "SportsCenter" anchors like Steve Berthiaume and Scott Van Pelt.

Loud-mouths like Steven A. Smith, Greg Anthony, Sean Salisbury, Michael Irvin, Mike Golic and John Kruk now dominate the channel's "analyst" roster for both "SportsCenter" and its ancillary shows like "NFL GameDay" and "Baseball Tonight." Most either spend their time screaming (Irvin doesn't even speak in complete sentences), trying to show how tough they are (i.e. Sean "I couldn't make it as a backup QB" Salisbury) or -- and this is often -- both.

ESPN's three best shows remain:

"Pardon the Interruption," featuring lovable loud-mouth sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, who get the fact that taking themselves too seriously is a bad idea. The debate program is preceded by the similar "Around the Horn," which is yet another example of imitators who can't hold the water at ESPN.

"Outside the Lines," which is excellent night in and night out -- for those who are still awake to watch it at midnight. Former "SportsCenter" anchor Bob Ley is the main host, with Jeremy Schapp filling in frequently. Each episode focuses on only one or two topics (everything from steroids to memorabilia) with in-depth reporting and coherent analysis from experts in the given subject.

And finally, there's "College GameDay," hosted by three guys who remember it's the players on the field -- not the anchors on the set -- that make people turn the channel on in the first place. All credit to the network for starting from nothing 25 years ago and building an empire of highlight reels, but it's too bad the rest of the station's other personalities don't follow the classy examples of "College GameDay's" Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreet, who host hands-down the best sports preview show on any channel at any time. Period.

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