1) Deadspin has had some excellent content lately about ESPN, particularly this piece from last week about ESPN’s tendency to roll over for its biggest clients. It recounts the story of ESPN’s cancellation of the highly rated drama, Playmakers in 2004, as well as various episodes in which long-time NBA commish David Stern has made his feelings known about the network’s coverage of his baby. Among other things, it appears that Stern may have played a role in preventing Stan Van Gundy from getting an analyst’s job at ESPN, after Bristol execs had more or less offered him one.
“What I find fascinating … you have to give David Stern and the NBA a lot of credit,” he said on Dan LeBatard’s radio show. “ESPN pays the league, and then the league tells them what to do.”
What cost him his job was the same thing that cost Frontline a high-profile partner in its NFL head-injury investigation. It was the basic absurdity of a mongrel business like ESPN’s. “You gotta have no balls whatsoever to pay someone hundreds of millions of dollars,” Van Gundy said, “and let them run your business.
2) As everyone is aware, Keith Olbermann is back on the air with the World Wide Leader. He is supposed to be on at 11pm weeknights, but the US Open is pushing him back at the moment (KO joked to Jeremy Schaap last week that the lack of good American male tennis players was a conspiracy to kill Olbermann’s ratings).
I did not like Olbermann back in the nineties when he and Dan Patrick were headlining the “Big Show,’ Sportscenter. I thought they were both too-clever-by-half and it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I appreciated his willingness to take on the Bush administration when many in the media were still afraid to speak out forcefully against his handling of the War on Terror, Iraq and so forth (for those of you who think that MSNBC was always just an unrelenting bastion of liberalism, here’s a refresher on the regular hero worship Chris Matthews showered on George W. Bush when he was still president). But in spite of my broad agreement with his politics, I still wasn’t a fan of his style or attitude).
Having said that, I really liked what I saw last night. He seemed less full of himself, which made his commentary more enjoyable to watch. And his commentary on Marvin Miller was particularly good. He lamented the lack of recognition of any sort for Miller on Labor Day. He recounted the extraordinary job Miller did in building the players’ union from virtually nothing into a powerhouse. He rebutted well-worn shibboleths about Miller, including the claim that fans pay higher ticket prices today because of those “excessive” salaries players make (if you want to argue that money should be redistributed from the rich to the less well off in general, more power to you. But in the context of sports economics, wishing players made less is nothing but a lament that owners don’t make more).
Jack Dickey, of Time Magazine online, had a good take on Olbermann’s new show:
But Olbermann looks like it will face the usual ESPN identity crisis, the same one that confronts Grantland, ESPN the Magazine and every other fiefdom within Bristol committed to doing good critical work: It’s hard to talk about what’s wrong with sports, especially in sports media, without fingering ESPN in some way. The realignment crisis in college football? That’s ESPN’s fault. The Hot-Take-ification of so much sports writing? More blood on ESPN’s hands.
ESPN, of course, can weather such identity crises. It’s who they are. In the meantime, Olbermann will be a welcome voice at the network. And truth be told, the no-politics rule will, in some ways, free him up to say more interesting things about sports and society than a partisan lens might allow.