Has ESPN Ruined Sports Commentary?

TV scripts have replaced personality.

One of my guilty pleasures is Great Sports Debate: From the Vault, which features TV episodes of the 1990s Philly sports chat fest. There’s the kitsch factor. The sets always look like a cross between a display at Caldor’s and my bedroom circa 1990. Jayson Stark’s moustache is spectacular. What keeps me watching is that it’s proof that yesterday’s heroes were relevant. (It’s nice to hear Lenny Dykstra’s name without a reference to the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

Recently, Comcast SportsNet revived The Great Sports Debate. It’s still a good-natured show featuring the same regulars and the same spirited, friendly banter. Still, I’ll stick to the greatest hits collection. I don’t blame host Angelo Cataldi, or the constant promotion of Chickie’s & Pete’s, or even the stupid Cash Crab.

I blame the changing culture of sports reporting, and I point a foam finger at ESPN—the sun, moon, and sky for all sports fans.

Several years after Al Morganti’s mullet departed the airwaves, ESPN introduced Pardon the Interruption, starring longtime friends and Washington Post sportswriters Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. It was—and remains—fantastic television. The duo runs through the day’s top sports headlines, offering their opinions. No topic lasts longer than five minutes, and a scroll at the side of the screen keeps viewers abreast of what’s coming up. After 10-plus years, Kornheiser and Wilbon are still insightful and witty, like Nick and Nora Charles hosting a Super Bowl party.

If television networks are good at anything it’s taking a novel concept and wringing the last droplet of originality from it. ESPN was no different. Around the Horn followed in 2002, dumbing down PTI by doubling the number of participants. It’s a collision of sound that rivals Suburban Station at rush hour. ESPN kept going. They unleashed Skip Bayless, a once-talented journalist turned professional contrarian, to share his opinions with the world. And then there was former Inquirer reporter Stephen A. Smith, Bayless’s occasional debate partner, who passes himself off as the street-smart truth teller by yelling out his logic like Jack Bauer trying to pry secrets from a terrorist suspect.

Now ESPN has built its morning and afternoon line-up on the concept of someone espousing about sports. This includes Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable, SportsNation, and Mike & Mike in the Morning, where former Eagle Mike Golic and the priggish Mike Greenberg spend four hours honing their Odd Couple shtick while not making any real points whatsoever. Even the beloved SportsCenter has adopted the same model. Who needs news or extended highlights when Mark Schlereth can deliver the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts on this week’s NFL games or Herm Edwards can make Philadelphia forget about the Miracle at the Meadowlands by swallowing the set whole?

One of the best things about sports is talking about them. ESPN has mastered that lesson, and so has every station yearning to stay current. The consequence of that is we no loner see the personality of reporters or anchors—the days of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick seem so quaint now—because we’re offered a steady diet of carefully constructed personalities. The news of sports isn’t important. It’s all about delivery and attitude and synergy. In 1990, Glen Macnow stepping away from the sports desk and sharing his thoughts on Jerome Brown was a big deal. As newspapers die a slow death, along with the notion of a hometown columnist, sports reporters craving relevancy can’t hide behind bylines and beats. The freshness of GSD is long gone. We’re bombarded with opinions about sports, and it’s not just television shows. It’s blogs, talk radio, message boards, Twitter, and on and on and on.

There is an upside to this new culture: We have the tools to start our own conversation. We don’t have to wait for a verdict from someone with a TV contract about the Sixers’ lack of a closer or the Phils’ increasingly creaky starting lineup. We can have our own debate, anytime, anyplace, with anyone.

As for whether anyone will listen, that’s a whole other ballgame.