Sports Television Salvation?
You don't have to look very hard to find a boatload of complaints about ESPN. Certainly I've filed my share. Plenty of serious sports fans hate ESPN to the point where they don't watch their desired allotment of sports programming because the quality that ESPN offers is so poor. Again, I'm among them. I never watch SportsCenter anymore. I can barely stomach Monday Night Football. Joe Morgan is unbearable. Their sports "talk" programs are an embarrassment to anybody with a functioning brain. And it's bad state of affairs. I'm missing stuff. Not the NFL so much, I'm missing a lot of highlights/info from the long-season sports.
What's the problem? For one, there's no alternative. I have to believe that there are enough sports fans who want another choice. I recognize that the people with whom I interact in no way resemble an accurate sample of the population (how else could Arrested Development be canceled while Til Death is still rolling). Still, the demand for legitimate coverage has to exist.
I have the answer. Wait for it. Don't laugh.
It's The Versus Network. (Please bear with me).
At this point, ESPN is basically a dictatorship. They control our information, our programming, and all the packaging that goes along with it. What we need is a revolution. A revolution doesn't just appear as an off the shelf government capability. It starts out in the mountain villages of the NHL and builds momentum into the foothills of college football. Eventually, it filters into the big cities of baseball and the NBA and soon enough, ethnic-looking people with machine guns are storming the capital.
Not long ago, Versus was the Outdoor Life Network, a fringe station with a lower profile than the Speed Channel or the Golf Network. They've come a long way.
Obviously their calling card is the NHL, a sport that's more popular in video game format than televised action. It's a start. The flip-side is that Versus is the flagship broadcast network of what used to be a major North American sport, which gives it a degree of credibility. They show two games every week, in the same programming window (which is important because people need consistency). It's a stake in the ground. Not only have they gained some sports legitimacy, they also get a chance to professionalize their live broadcasts. This will be a critical skillset moving forward. You don't want people tuning in to their new shows and seeing an amateur hour broadcast circus.
After planting their flag with the NHL, Versus has branched out into college football. Sure, they don't have the marquee matchups, but they have televised two of the most exciting games of the year with the Stanford-USC and Oregon State-Cal upsets. This is good. This gains exposure. I'd bet a fair amount of people around the country had no idea these games were televised and managed find their way to Versus during the 2nd halves of those games. They're showing a total of 19 games this year, with the rest of the schedule highlighted by 2nd/3rd tier rivalry games, Cal-Stanford and Utah-BYU. Again, it's not eye-popping, but these are games that some people really want to watch (mostly hippies and Mormons, possibly the two most important demographics in broadcasting...).
Working the Fringe
With the major sports locked down, Versus is doing an admirable job of sopping up fringe sports. While ESPN is riding the poker wave, Versus has picked up stuff on the outskirts of the American sporting culture like the Rugby World Cup, the Tour de France, Mountain West basketball, rodeo, and some kind of minor extreme fighting competition. It's something. Not much. But like Steve Spurrier's Redskins, it's cheap and available.
Their big new roll-out is a sports talk show hosted by Dennis Miller. Color me unimpressed. On the plus side, they're running two shows that I'm excited about. One is a Hard Knocks-style documentary on the South Sydney Rabbitohs, with a heavy dose of new team owner, Russell Crowe. Souths are the Rugby League side that I barrack for, so they've got at least one viewer. It's actually a pretty well done behind the scenes show, although it's not exactly water cooler buzz. It gets 8 thumbs up from me, and I'd recommend it to people who aren't fans of the sport.
The other is a weekly hour-long show about high school football rivalries, premiering this week with Jenks vs. Union (Oklahoma). I love this stuff. Now I realize that I'm a cross-section of nothing, but I'm excited about these two shows.
They've also got some kind of extreme fighting reality show and a whole lot of outdoorsy crap that's leftover from the OLN days. I guess you have to fill the air with something.
The Serious Sports Show. It's going to be important for them to start producing some kind of no-nonsense sports highlights show. There's demand for that. Give me the old version of SportsCenter with as many highlights and numbers as you can jam into 30 or 60 minutes.
Keep building the broadcast portfolio. Versus put in a baseball bid this year and couldn't beat out ESPN. Get a game every week. Get more college football and basketball. Keep racking up the fringe sports. Real fans of stuff like lacrosse and rugby will watch whatever they can get. Try to grab some international sports.
The front page. Do something to get your name out there. This is going to require some kind of must-see original programming. Something that might be a little edgy. Find the Deadliest Catch of sports. I don't know what it is yet -- maybe it's booze fueled mayhem of a Canadian minor league hockey team. Maybe it's a modern Hoop Dreams following AAU/ABCD camp kids. Whatever it is, it has to be good, it has to be catchy, and it absolutely can not be celebrity driven. It can't be some kind of Dennis Rodman-centric Surreal Life travesty. They have to stay legitimate.
Sports fans, this is our best hope for toppling the insufferable cruelty of the iron-fisted boo-yah regime of ESPN. Maybe it's a long-shot, but I think it can happen. We'll check back in 2 years.