ESPN – 30 Years On

It’s funny how fast time flies. It seems like only yesterday that I was in high school watching a new cable television service. There were about 20 some channels in all including HBO. The one that caught my eye was an all sports, all the time network – the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network or ESPN for short. ESPN first began broadcasting in 1979. It signed up with 625 cable systems and reached one million out of the 20 million households that had cable at the time.

I have an early fondness for this early form of ESPN. Australian Rules Football was an early staple along with tennis and the broadcast of the Canadian Football League. Broadcasters like George Grande and Bob Ley came into the living room with highlights that lasted an hour! No longer did you only get five minutes on your local news, but a whole hour of highlights of sporting events.
Things began to change for ESPN in the early 1980s. It began a lucrative deal with the NCAA to do football and basketball broadcasts. By September, the network was now broadcasting 24 hours a day. Over the next decade, ESPN expanded its services and programming. Boxing and the NFL Draft both premiered along with the College World Series. In 1984, ESPN was purchased by ABC/Capital Cities. In 1987, ESPN went “big time” with their Sunday NFL Broadcasts. In 1990, MLB premiered on ESPN.

Going from my late teens to my late 20s, ESPN was always there as thee source of information. It was on 24 hours a day. It didn’t matter what time of day, you knew it would have the latest in sports information. It was the Internet before the Internet. It was purchased first by ABC/Capital Cities and then later by the Disney Corporation. As the 1990s rolled around, ESPN began to expand its brand to include ESPN2. ESPN News, and ESPN Classic. More channels would come later along with ESPN Zones and ESPN The Magazine. Its sheer force had permeated the culture to drive down competition. FoxSports briefly tried as a national network but more localized networks like YES and Comcast have had more stability with built in local audiences.

With Disney’s purchase in 1995, the on-air talent and attitude began to change. No longer was it a place to get sports news but rather a place to be entertained with catch-phrases and yelling. What began as a concept as a sports round table in Chicago and grew into the Sports Reporters on Sundays and evolved into grown men constantly yelling at each other. Before Mitch Albom became Mitch Albom the author, he along with Dick Schapp and the always yelling now turned young adult literature author Mike Lupica, were on the Sports Reporters every Sunday. When Dick Schapp died, the show died in my opinion, and with it, the last of a breed of reporters.

Throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s, ESPN became the news. No longer were the stories the news, the talent was.  Water cooler talked used to revolve around the game, then the highlighter, and then the catch phrase became the center of water cooler conservation. To be honest, I haven’t watched ESPN Sportscenter in years. Last time I came across it, Stuart Scott was yelling “Boo-Ya” and “Cool as the other side of the pillow” for the 3000th time. It was not a pleasant ten seconds.

In the last ten years, ESPN has been complicit in destroying sport as we knew it.
1. Baseball – The highlight of the home run helped proliferate the steroids era. Thankfully, the “Web Gem” and “That’s Nasty” saved it. Unfortunately, ESPN’s overabundance of Yankees-Red Sox coverage has killed a large section of the population from even tuning in anymore. Thankfully, the MLB Network is there.
2. The NBA – Back in the 1980s, the NBA enjoyed its highest popularity with the Lakers and Celtics. Each team had five guys who knew how to pass, dribble, shoot and move with out the ball. ESPN made the “dunk” the thing and the NBA has never been the same. Now, I can’t even watch an NBA game as it has become a pick and roll league with six guys standing around out of ten.
3. The NFL – Luckily it hasn’t killed the NFL yet. The draft, on the other hand, does come close. For sheer boredom, you might as well just go mow the yard and then come back and check the scroll to see who your team drafted.
4. The PGA – 90% of their coverage has been about Tiger the last 12 years, and deservedly so as he is the greatest player the game has ever seen. But he doesn’t win every match or major. Yet, his performance became the only player that mattered.
5. Erin Andrews – ………I got nothin’ here….

In the end, what is the purpose of ESPN in the 21st century? Is it to be a cash cow for the Disney Corporation? Is it to do news? As of now, there is no line between ESPN, its reporters, and the athletes and sports they cover. They are all the same part of the same entertainment industry. Objectivity left long ago.


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