[Business Day One] The Worldwide Leader


This is a dead time in sports. Baseball is still shaking off that All Star nap that it took and everyone associated is trying to work off the 5 pounds they gained from their Celebrity Ping Pong and Bowling tournaments. The pre-break freshness of a young season has faded, and the playoff chase has really yet to begin. Unless you’re a big fan of college recruiting, football news is pretty infrequent. Basketball summer leagues have nothing to do with anything, and are justifiably not followed by fans, coaches or even most players. And hockey is hockey.

This makes ESPN’s job rather difficult. They need to fill numerous SportsCenters each day with compelling stories that will draw an audience and keep the ratings high. As someone that watches SportsCenter every day, I can say definitively that they are failing. ESPN, who has an entire department dedicated to flashy graphics and laser sound effects, cannot keep the mid-July doldrums entertaining. Granted, I don’t think anyone can, but watching ESPN fail is like watching your dad get smacked around. Emasculating to a frightening degree.

But damn if ESPN isn’t trying. The Worldwide Leader launched two big things at us to try to ease the post-All-Star, pre-Playoff sports deficiency. This month, we were treated the ESPYs and the launch of the Who’s Now tournament. I sure as heck appreciate the network’s tenacity, but I think they only went 1-for-2 at the plate with these. I loved the former and hated that latter…

I was sitting at Bukowski’s last night when my friend Camilo asked me if I was going to watch the ESPY’s. The question caught me off-guard, since I don’t believe I’d ever been asked if I planned on taking in an awards show. But I think that’s what makes the ESPY’s so different, and palatable to your average American male sports fan. You don’t really consider it an awards show, but it absolutely is. There is a red carpet, ladies in fancy gowns, hosts cracking jokes and statuettes being handed out based on achievement. By all measurable statistics, it is the same as the Emmy’s. But, well, it’s sports. And that makes it better.

The ESPYs worked this year for a few reasons. Jimmy Kimmel (whose humor I never particularly enjoyed) and LeBron James did a very good job hosting. The wisecracks didn’t seem forced and there was a fair amount of chemistry between the two. Also, the award recipients all made sense. Unlike the Oscars, which are often distributed to make a socio-political statement or to reward aging actors for all of their near-misses, the ESPYs are decided by popular vote. And the people got it right. The Statue of Liberty stunt Boise State pulled to beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl got Play of the Year and LaDainian Tomlinson won Best Male Athlete. By the book, which is exactly how awards shows should go. And, most importantly for the viewing audience, it was the best highlight reel you could ever see. The producers took their time showing the Colts winning the Super Bowl, and Jeter making clutch hit after clutch hit and Tiger Woods Tiger Woodsing the competition. Good old fashioned clip show, with more than just you applauding. It worked.

And then there’s Who’s Now. I’m not going to link to it because I don’t want anyone going there. The concept behind it is simple. ESPN chose 32 athletes from different sports and pitted them in a head to head popularity contest. A team of three analysts, anchored by the surprisingly uncharismatic Keyshawn Johnson, opine on which athlete is cooler, and then the audience votes. Whoever is determined to be more Now moves on.

If you give me a solid eight hours and a notepad, I’d probably be able to craft something more ridiculous, but I can’t think of anything right now. ESPN is manufacturing a Who’s More Cool contest! That’s their big story. It’s in their teasers for upcoming SportsCenters. We all know that this is a slow time in sports and that ESPN is struggling to fill air time. But at this point, I’d rather watch five minutes of old After Dark screen savers than this ludicrous contest.

So, to sum up, watch the ESPYs next time they replay it and run out of the room when you hear the original Who’s Now rap that they paid someone to create for their popularity thinger. Kickoff is in a month and twenty days. Let’s see if we can hold on until then.