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Sports: The Rise and Fall Of ESPN’s Modern-Day Roman Empire

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On September 7th 1979, a show called Sportscenter hit the air for the first time and a cable channel called ESPN was on the air. From that day forward, sports would never be the same again.

ESPN has changed the face of sports, some say for the better, others not so much. Much like the Romans before them, the Worldwide Leader in Sports built an empire. Again, much like the Romans before them, they also did away with all people who would challenge them. Fox Sports Net was laid to waste. CNN-SI was put out of its misery. Then, ESPN was all alone atop the sports mountain.

Now, John Skipper is starting fiddle and Bristol is burning. Sure, CBS and NBC have their own sports division and FOX has a new cable channel, but ESPN has been so strong for so long that none of them could even put a dent in them. How do you compete with the company that has the rights to broadcast NFL, MLB and NBA Games, when the name “SportsCenter” has become synonymous with sports news and culture?

So how is this mighty empire burning to the ground? Well, it is much more of a metaphorical burning, but none-the-less, the cracks in ESPN’s once impregnable armor are starting to show. The strange part about it is, it wasn’t FOX or CBS or even NBC that caused these issues. No, these wounds are all self-inflicted.

When you have nobody to push you to be better, sometimes you fall flat on your face. The WWE is a great analogy here. Some of their best product was when WCW was as its height and pushing WWE in the ratings, even overtaking the Goliath at one point.

But as soon as Vince McMahon slayed that dragon, the product has suffered.

The same can be said for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader. When they even had the slightest competition, they knew they had to be better than everyone else. So they had some of the best anchor pairings of all-time on Sportscenter (Dan Patrick & Keith Olberman, Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott), and the show really became can’t-miss television for sports fans everywhere.

But ever since they vanquished all comers, the product has suffered. I can honestly say I have not watched an episode of Sportscenter in I don’t know how long. The product isn’t nearly as good anymore, and I couldn’t even tell you some their anchor pairings and I used to work there.

It all started on this downhill slope when Dan Patrick, one of the originals, was not re-signed to a new deal. I know that was such a long time ago, but it was the start of where they have ended up now.

Lately, things have gone from bad to worse. Now personally, I am not a fan of Bill Simmons. I used to be.

He used to funny and on-point. Nowadays though, he has gotten so full of himself that I find his work very lacking. But that is beside the point. Simmons was a very popular figure at ESPN. He started with a column on “Page 2” on ESPN.com, but then branched out to a site, paid for by ESPN, called Grantland. It was all about Pop Culture mixed with sports, and it became one of the better reads on the site.

Then Simmons was turned into an analyst on their NBA coverage. This was ESPN’s big mistake. Simmons fashions himself as an “expert” because he wrote a book on the NBA and has been a fan for years. But he just wasn’t good as an analyst, at least in my opinion. But yet, Simmons popularity was still pretty high.

So with his contract up in September, Simmons wanted to play a little hardball with ESPN, and get a rather large raise. After considering it, ESPN passed and now Simmons is no longer on ESPN. Don’t worry Simmons fans, he has landed on his feet at HBO, but he is just one of the fixtures that have left.

Collin Cowherd was brought in as a host on ESPN Radio, and had one of the more popular shows on the network. Cowherd was very opinionated, but was able to back up most of his opinions by fact. He was a good listen, and had a lot of knowledge and knew how to do exactly what he was paid to.

But things got a little testy between Cowherd and management when it was time to re-up his deal. When the failed to come to an agreement, Cowherd said he would finish out his contract before moving over to FOX Sports 1. That is until this past week.

Cowherd was talking about baseball on his show on Thursday and how the complexity of the sport is totally overblown. But he may have taken it a bit too far with these comments:

“It’s too complex? I’ve never bought into that ‘baseball is too complex.’ Really? A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime as having world class academic abilities. A lot of those kids come from rough backgrounds and have not had opportunities academically that other kids from other countries have. Baseball is like any sport. It’s mostly instincts. A sportswriter who covers baseball could go up to Tony La Russa and make an argument and Tony would listen and it would seem reasonable. There’s not a single NFL writer in the country who could diagram a play for Bill Belichick. You know, we get caught up in this whole ‘thinking-man’s game.’ Is it in the same family? Most people could do it. It’s not being a concert pianist. It’s in the same family.”

Cowherd would later apologize for basically calling all Dominicans idiots, but it was too little too late. Rather than allowing his mea culpa to stand and carry on, ESPN terminated his contract on the spot. If you ask me, they were just looking for an excuse anyway.

But it is not just Simmons and Cowherd, it is also Keith Olbermann who they pursued for two years, he finally agreed to come back, and now he has been let go–again. So too have Matt Wiener, Brian Kenny, Peter Gammons, Rick Bucher, Doug Gottlieb and Howie Schwab.

That is an All-Star roster of talent that ESPN either felt was expendable, or did not want to pay. Either way, this is why the Worldwide leader is starting to crumble.

As long as there is no competition, it may not be too noticeable that things are falling apart in Bristol. But remember, as Nero fiddled, Rome burned and now the great Roman Empire is a distant memory.

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4 thoughts on “Sports: The Rise and Fall Of ESPN’s Modern-Day Roman Empire

  1. I like how you use a pic of Britt McHenry for the article’s cover. ESPN figured that if you hire a couple of hotties to roam the sidelines and perform all the interviews, the eyeballs will continue to watch. It doesn’t matter who is calling the games or reporting the sports, the real talent is once again the underpaid women. After a few years, they’ll just grab the next graduating class from Northwestern to take her spot. The oxymoron is that none of us has called them on this practice. ‘Fish’ nails it in this piece, but it goes much deeper. I’m a longtime sports enthusiast who like Andrew, lost the love for the nightly Sportscenter ritual. The anchors are bores and their comedy isn’t even close to laughable. A phone app has taken it’s place for my score watching. Still, with all this said, ESPN will continue to remain on top because of their shift at how they approach their bottom-line. It’s sad, but true!

    1. Paul,

      As Founder/CEO and Publisher of the site, these words mean a lot to me, as I advised Fish of my decision to use a pic of McHenry due to her “antics” (which by the way I also wrote about on this site) she is a representation of the proverbial shift you mentioned from actual quality to hot sideline reports and TMZ-level tabloid journalism.

      Thank you again for reading and please check out our soon-to-launch downloadable quarterly on Magzter

  2. Robert,

    Thanks for the kind thumbs up. I’d ask one favor of you if I can…I misspelled ‘higher’ when it should’ve been ‘hirer’…can you please spellcheck for me?

    I didn’t even think to proof-read my work…wonder why I got a B+ in English 😉

  3. I sincerely hope NBC/Universal can bolster their college sports inventory and pick up at least part, if not all, of the Big Ten. If I ran the NBC Sports Group (as they call it), I would practically hand Jim Delaney and blank check months ago and tell him to put in an amount. I would even try to buyout BTN. At least, take the ESPN portion as they appear to be vulnerable in their parts of the rights to keep up with NBC, FOX (you know they sense blood in the water despite their own problems at FS1), and even CBS who seems too quiet with all this. Remember, they all but lost the NCAA Tournament until Turner saved the day. If NBC got a part of the Big Ten, if not all, I would send the Premier League a packing. Fox and ESPN would love to get that package back.

    I am not sure how much money NBC makes on the home Notre Dame home football games or the ratings that may seem more “cult like” for the regular games. I am sure the big games get high numbers including the USC game. But that is pretty much it at the peacock’s nest. The only other college sports there is some east coast hockey and some Colonial and Atlantic Ten hoops. At least get a few more mid-majors like the Missouri Valley and West Coast and package that as some mid-major package.

    This Big Ten TV deal will be a monster. They have one thing going for them that the SEC does not have…. large TV markets. New York City (Rutgers), Chicago (Northwestern and Illinois), Minneapolis-St.Paul (Minnesota), Washington, D.C. (Maryland), Detroit (Michigan and Michigan State), Cincinnati and Cleveland (Ohio State), Philadelphia (Penn State), Indianapolis (Indiana and Purdue), and big alumni bases in the Los Angeles and even in Florida and Arizona. Plus skirting the St. Louis area. I honestly cannot tell you the biggest television market for the SEC. It was rumored that the Big Ten schools could get like $43 million a year. This might even pass the rights for some NFL packages and the Olympics. It will be a monster….. This Hawkeye fan can just hear the athletic department right now yelling “cha ching”.

    Anyway, this 35 year employee for an NBC affiliate can only hope and dream. Co-workers do fantasy players and teams. I do fantasy sports television rights (no such game found yet for that). Thanks!

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