As the pregame coverage of last night's Game 4 between the Heat and Thunder began, ESPN went courtside to Miami for a brief segment featuring those paragons of journalistic excellence, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless. At this point, the blogosphere's main weapon in the fight against the MSM's unceasing inanity--the "fisking"--would be admittedly somewhat pointless here. We all know that Stephen A. and Skip are nothing more than actors playing a part, or "caricatures" as Chris of Burgeoning Wolverine Star put it last night. They are glorified provocateurs. However, if they were as universally reviled as many would hope, they would, in theory, not continue to appear on ESPN in their current forms.
Yet, it seems that it has come to a breaking point. Something about yesterday's brief segment struck me as absurd, even more than is normally the case re: SAS and Skip. As Stephen A. and Skip "debated" the issues, I became a little sad about the state of affairs in the world of sports coverage. I put the word debate in quotes because it is First Take's own descriptor for what supposedly goes on at that show. Before every segment, Jay Crawford (or whoever was the debate moderator on a given day), would say something like "so let's start the debate," something which would be said with the glee of a person about to engage in gossip rather than reasoned dialogue. Then Skip and whatever poor souls forced to confront him on that day would start to "debate." Maybe it's a semantic point, but I always laughed because it is always so forced and artificial. Actual debate needs no preface. Without delving too much into the world of politics, First Take is nothing more than a political Crossfire-esque show, rife with verbal gunshots fired indiscriminately and without any sort of pointedness or unifying rationale other than "I must win this debate." Perhaps the thing that took me aback the most is that the duo were outside of the controlled environment that is the First Take studio. I don't know if I've missed other such courtside appearances from these two during this NBA Finals series, but last night was the first time I noticed this. It was strange, as if ESPN was letting a genie outside of the First Take bottle, only instead of a genial, Robin Williams-voiced wish granting genie, ESPN was unleashing SAS and Skip on the masses. Pandora doesn't go back in the box.
I have already forgotten what exactly was said during this brief segment. As usual, it was full of histrionics and ridiculous assertions bereft of meaning, naked narratives showing the nitty gritty of their flawed infrastructures, stripped bare of anything that can be termed enlightening or meaningful. It sort of reminds me of the modern generic action movie trailer, which always features some combination of the following things: explosions, the protagonist making out with an attractive woman, the protagonist and his cohorts huddled around a table in a dimly-lit room discussing how they were going to get back at Generic Villain Guy for that thing that he did, and, finally, one last explosion which shows the protagonist heroically running away from said explosion and then doing some sort of front flip/outrageous dive (which, to me, is about as useful as sliding into first base as far as running away from explosions go). To make a long story short: they're both narratives without depth that are easily duplicable, never innovative, and almost always laughably bad.
Skip hemmed and hawed about something, and, as per the script, Stephen A. engaged in a series of what can most accurately be termed acting. He examined his cuticles, he feigned boredom, he looked off apathetically into the distance, his eyelids drooped in a gesture of faux sleepiness. The only thing he did not do was pull out a newspaper with a front page headline of "CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS GUY?" and read while Skip yell-talked at him. Despite being completely useless as a piece of reporting, the entire thing was childish and unprofessional. Keep in mind, this is part of ESPN's coverage of the NBA Finals, the highest stage of basketball competition that exists anywhere in the known universe (not to knock the quality of competition on, say, Mars...I SEE YOU OLYMPUS MONS ACADEMY).
For all the good that ESPN has done for the sporting world over the years, the rise of Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, and others of their ilk, represents a watershed moment for the world of sports. In spite of the efforts of other entities (i.e. NBC Sports), it appears that ESPN's monopoly on the coverage of the world of sports will continue to exist into the foreseeable future. The question is: what's next? Unfortunately, I feel that the "serious" sports fan's condition is akin to that of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot; that is, waiting for something that will probably never come in a climate of tragicomic absurdity.
It is clear that ESPN has long since made its choice: it has sold its soul to a cadre of actors masquerading as sports information disseminators. There are seemingly two equally unappealing long-term consequences of this conscious decision:
- ESPN will continue to give air time to these sorts of folks, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned "serious" fan. Sports coverage at the WWL will continue to stagnate. It will continue to be uninformative and centered around staged "debates," strong takes, psychoanalysis of guys paid to play a game, and platitudes. It will continue to be terrible, but there will also be no other options unless NBC Sports or some other entity really steps its game up (which seems unlikely).
- As the years pass--I'm talking long-term here--a new wave of sports personalities will replace the aforementioned provocateurs...only they will be no less terrible, generally. ESPN may gradually lose some viewers over time, but those losses will simply be offset by a new generation of fans who seek ESPN's brand of sports info-tainment.* Business will still be booming, and, again, nobody else will even be able to come close to matching the sorts of publicity, TV deals, etc. that ESPN can so lavishly bestow upon the sporting world's most profitable and popular brands (unfortunately, the NHL does not apparently fall under this umbrella).
*You may point to Grantland as proof that "see, ESPN is trying!", but that just isn't enough, as laudable as that venture is. At this point, Grantland is still just filling a niche. Maybe I am being naive, but I feel like there can be so much more.
Aside from the at this point redundant "fisking" of folks like Bayless et al, this discussion brings perhaps the most important point to the fore: the role of the fan in sports media consumption. Where does this all go from here? If SB Nation's rise to prominence, the decline of traditional print media, and the mere existence of something like NBC Sports are any indication, there is no doubt that this isn't a business completely immune to the magic wand of progress and/or change. This is good news, but it does not mean that these things are enough to yield substantive change in the way that sports are covered.
It is a little reductive, I admit, to divide all sports fans into "serious" and "miscellaneous sports entertainment seekers of varying seriousness." Still, it is a distinction that needs to be made, mostly vis-a-vis demographics. As the current generation of "serious" fans grows older, will the next generation follow in its footsteps? Will the current generation represent the last generation? What about the so called "other" fan, a group which would seem to span across all ages? As much as frequenters of "the blogs" universally mock the commenters of Yahoo!, ESPN, and other MSM outlets, the fact remains that it is 2012, and these sorts of people still exist in large numbers. A medical statistic from the Surgeon General for you**: the next time you find yourself amongst a large congregation of people, look to your left and then to your right. Odds are, one of these people has written a "CHRIS CHASE IS THE WORST PERSON EVER!!!!111!!111" comment somewhere on the Internet.
Here's what it comes down to. ESPN's current chosen model of glitzy, Hollywood-ized sports coverage and subsidized trolling seems to be, in my mind, one with a limited ceiling. It has only been so successful because it has piggybacked onto ESPN's long legacy of what was at one point supposedly universally respected. This is not exactly Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will, but you know what I mean. As the Skip and Stephen A. Show becomes more and more absurd in the eyes of more and more people, there just has to be a point when ESPN decides to tone it down or go in another direction. Or, maybe not. Either way, it seems that this strategical resource has already been voraciously tapped. I have no doubt that Skip will continue to say ridiculous things about Tim Tebow, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and others, but I think that even the Worst Sort of Fan will become tired of it all much sooner than ESPN would hope.
At the same time, I have to question how much further the domain of the "serious" fan can advance. For the most part, yes, I am referring to the blogosphere. MGoBlog (and other team-specific independent blogs), SB Nation's recent expansion into the realm of original video content, Grantland, and other non-traditional media, are all magnificent but seem to attract only a certain sort of fan. On second thought, it's not even about a "sort" of fan (i.e. quality), it's that anyone who is going to be a regular reader of MGoBlog, EDSBS, Grantland, and so on...probably already is one. Maybe I am being cynical***, but it seems as if these media are already, in a sense, tapped out. This, if accurate, is more than a little depressing, since the aforementioned MSM parallel in this discussion of ceilings is...Skip Bayless. The horror, the horror.
So, it would seem that we are in for a bit of a standstill in the short to medium-term. I'm not sure where this all goes from here. Like most things on this planet, it seems that change will occur at a snail's pace and not before significant backlash, obstruction, and general difficulties.
All we have at this point are a laundry list of questions. Is sports media and the sports fan a sort of feedback loop? That is, does the sports media mold the fan, or does the General Will of the fan--if one exists, which, given the ham-fisted distinctions I've made here, probably doesn't--directly force the hand of the sports media establishment? As a self-anointed "serious" fan, I have to say that I am skeptical about the latter. Thus, it logically follows that "change," a stand-in for "better," can only come from the establishment.**** Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some "pretending to not watch ESPN while waiting for my tardy friend Godot" to do.
**May not be an actual statistic.
***Also, now that I've reached the end here, I realize that perhaps I am underestimating the role of ESPN/traditional media's sizable head start on "new media," whether we're talking about blogs or any of their related variants.
****All of this was probably better left to someone with some sort of Ph.D. on the subject, but...oh well. What's done is done.