Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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.

Programming

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.

Next Steps

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.

43 Comments:

At 10:07 PM, Blogger Whitney said...

Jer-
You are preaching to the choir again, but unlike my focus-less insults in an MLC post relative eons ago (and things have only gotten worse), you actually have a targeted solution. Kudos.

When I pleaded:

"Because this somewhat resembles a rehash of what's already been published elsewhere, and because by dedicating this much space to something not directly related to the Mets or Red Sox I am doing exactly that for which I chastised my little friend, I'll simply offer a solution. We need an alternative. We need a small channel to spring up and offer what ESPN once provided: a sports fanatic's station. Sure, CNNSI failed, but ESPN wasn't as primed for a toppling as they are now. And please don't even mention the Worst Damn Sports Show Period -- anything with Tom Arnold as a host cannot possibly be taken seriously. The time is now. Let's see someone have a go at the big network by stealing away the purists while ESPN tries to draw the casual fans with its new style of programming. Please?

...I heard crickets for over three years, but now you're getting my hopes up. I have tuned in to Versus a few times. Like some of the folks you alluded to, I was one drawn to the Rugby World Cup action (though the $27 for 2 months of Setanta was money even more brilliantly spent), but the programming there is a clear cut above the rest of the DirecTV low 600's.

Are they in the standard DirecTV package or a Sports Pack channel?

What can we the consumers do -- other than tune in and spread the word -- to give them the edge they need??? Inquiring minds want to know.

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Jerry's got me excited about the high school football rivalry show. That's the kind of programming that keeps me from hating reality television as it has allowed more access to reality/documentary sports programming that I find so interesting. Along those same lines, the show on the Rabbitohs sounds like it could be quality stuff. I'm in for at least three episodes of that.

 
At 9:06 AM, Blogger chip said...

my last reply to Mark on the previous topic...(I Promise)

Population cannot account for why the level of high school football in LA is head and shoulders above what you find in NYC and Chicago. Its more than that, the high school football is as competitive and as important to the school community at large as it is anywhere, and the numbers are there as well. That makes it the only megacity in the US where geography, land issues and weather conspire for uber competitive high school football. That's why the CIF Southern Section, which last time I counted had about 1100 schools and 13 classifications, is a different beast than the much smaller but talented Dade or the bigger but football poor NYC school system. The places people visit in Southern Cal are the exception to the rule that high school football absolutely matters in the communities of LA once you go east of the PCH. You can't hit Sunset and Malibu and Hermosa and declare that a metro area with 13 million people isn't football country. You got to go to the places like Carson and Santa Ana Irvine, the middle class places where every high school has a freshman, sophomore (only) and varsity team, each with 90 kids and where they have to play the games in junior college stadia that seat 10k. That IS football country, even there is no corollary to the Skins or Red Sox to unite everyone in that vast city. It doesn't mean its Columbus Ohio or Katy Texas, but its still football country.

And you are way off base to think I defend all things Angeleno....I don't particularly like LA, although I find the objections of the one or two time visitors to be uninformed and tired. I much prefer SD in SoCal and San Fran overall.

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Well we agree on at least one thing: SD and SF are far better places to live and/or visit. Hopefully we can let this discussion rest for the time being.

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger chip said...

I think this is a solid idea Jerry. Create a 60 minute alternative to Sportscenter with a flat out ban on Caddyshack quotes during golf coverage or Bull Durham quotes for baseball. Maybe more balance too where it doesn't have to be 90% Big 3 American sports, maybe throw more international soccer as well as MLS, more rugby, even occasionally big track meets- make it the cosmopolitan SC...I would be in for sure.

 
At 9:17 AM, Blogger chip said...

Disney owns ESPN, right? The only way I see this idea really getting off the ground would be for a major competitor like NBC Universal, to buy or partner with Versus, because this won't be cheap. But the more I think about this idea the more I like it.

I didn't even know Dennis Miller was back on the air...its no good? My first order of business tonight after the Sox game gets rained out is to find out what channel my Versus is. They carry NHL in HD right? Pretty sure I have it.

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger chip said...

totally random sports triva....(Actually they should show this on Versus as well.)

Do you know what the second highest attended sports league (per game) in the world is? Surprised me. Not Premier League, not MLB.... Australian Rules Football.

 
At 10:11 AM, Blogger Jerry said...

-- The Miller show hasn't started yet. Based on the previews, he might be taking the sports media behind the woodshed, which might be interesting. Kind of a live-action, fancy-worded blog.

-- Since I have the sports package, I'm not sure if Vs. is available without it. It's 603 on DirecTV. And they do have some NHL HD.

-- Strategically, I think they're going to have to work around the NFL. The NFL is #1, but it's sufficiently covered and they'd probably have trouble breaking new ground there. They should cover it, but maybe not emphasize it.

-- Most Aussie Rules Football games are played in cricket grounds, which are enormous. I'd guess the NFL is #2 on that list. The Euro soccer leagues have too many small stadiums and small teams.

 
At 10:44 AM, Blogger chip said...

NFL is by far #1, I was asking which was #2. NFL avg is around 67k, Aussie rules around 37k. What's amazing is that with 162 games, MLB is 5th just behind Premier League.

From this photo, looks like Aussie Rules could be the worst spectator sport going. (purely in terms of sightlines, distance from the action.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Telstra_Dome_Panoramic.jpg

 
At 11:06 AM, Blogger Greg said...

The field used in Aussie Rules is probably the biggest field size in all of the "field" sports. There are also a lot of guys on the field at once and each team has runners who deliver messages to the players from the coach.

The pace of action is like faster soccer. There is tackling, but not a ton of it, it's mostly running and kicking.

 
At 11:17 AM, Blogger mayhugh said...

Greg, are you familiar with Welsh Rules Football at all? The Eclectic Sports Bar around the corner has it on every once in a while. It seems to be vaguely different from Aussie Rules - the only specific thing I've really picked up on is that they play with a ball that's shaped like a lunchbox.

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Welsh Rules? Never heard of it.

 
At 11:36 AM, Blogger Greg said...

In fact, I don't even think such a thing exists. I think Mayhugh is fabricating this sport. And the Eclectic Sports Bar is nowhere near the Mayhugh ranch. I think Mayhugh is making that up too.

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Whitney said...

Perhaps he speaks of Gaelic Football?

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger Whitney said...

And that's pronounced "gay lick" for those with enough surety in their own masculinity to say it. (Those without that call is "Welsh Rules football".)

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger Raskolnikov said...

The only way Versus can save televised sports is by not becoming ESPN. Nix the Dennis Miller show and the Sidney Crosby slurpfest.

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

They need The 2 Man Advantage.

www.youtube.com/the2manadvantage

 
At 2:26 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

They need The 2 Man Advantage

www.youtube.com/the2manadvantage

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger Cam A. said...

The problem is that all Versus can hope for is to be the #1 sports network. Once they do this, they will start showning NFL/NBA/MLB. Once they do that, they will start taking orders from those leagues. Then, you cannot report the real stories that go on with those leagues. You cannot have real information that real sports fans want. You must promote those leagues with ridiculous crap like "Who's now?"

 
At 2:53 PM, Blogger rob said...

versus can be enormously successful without aspiring to be the wwl. avis tries harder, right? bet they still make a decent profit. and if i wasn't so lazy, i'd go look it up.

 
At 3:16 PM, Blogger Opiwan said...

Versus is available on DirecTV through the Your Choice Plus tier, I believe, and definitely does not require the sports pack. I think it's channel 608 (if memory serves).

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger Permanent4 said...

If you Google "Welsh Rules Football," this post comes up #4. It was a joke. They play soccer and rugby in Wales like everywhere else.

Versus would do well to pick up some rugby and Aussie Rules, actually. Tri Nations, Six Nations, Heineken Cup and Super 14 could all attract international viewers, and the AFL hasn't had a strong TV presence in America since it expanded from the VFL.

Versus could probably do a better job with MLS than ESPN, too, but the WWL seems intent on ruining soccer for everybody.

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Whitney said...

Actually, the Welsh spit on soccer. "Fecking English sport," a plus-years minus-teeth old Welshman scoffed when I mentioned "football" in his pre'ence. And hell hath no fury like the Welsh ire for Old England.

 
At 8:54 PM, Blogger mayhugh said...

Whit, thanks for the save - it was indeed Gaelic rules I was thinking about. I know just enough about American Football, Soccor, Rugby, and Aussie rules to know I was not watching any of those.

Rob - not a bad start for the Sox.

 
At 7:50 AM, Blogger TR said...

On the topic of TV, I would like to rank the things that annoyed me most that were parts of Fox's World Series pre-game show:

Honorable mentions: Kevin Kennedy's facial skin, Jeannie Zelasko's comments about being in a "packed Fenway park," as the camera rolls bast 8 empty seats directly behind their desk, Tim McCarver's dye job. Sometimes HDTV is not so kind to the viewer.

#6) Eric Karros' disturbingly large forehead and coiffed hair. Each seems to enhance the other, making his head seem all that much bigger.

#5) Fox' use of actors to re-create famous World Series moments. My favorite was the close-up shot of a guy wearing a Dodgers jersey with 23 on it, checking out a baseball bat. Weak.

#4) Jeannie Zelasko's nostrils. Is it possible to have nostrils that perpetually flare?

#3) Eric Byrnes' hair. It's one thing to go for the "intentionally messy" look when you have straight hair. To do it when you have a wispy 'fro is a big mistake. I was trying to assess how he came up with that look. I have no answers.

#2) Jeannie Zelasko's hair. In ten years on the air, she has yet to find a hairstyle that looks remotely decent. She reminds me of a William & Mary girl in that she has a tiny bit potential that gets lost in a sea of unfashionable decisions and a cluelessness/apathy about trying to look appealing to men. She would've been a good Theta.

#1) Eric Karroth' lithp. Is it too much to ask to have a pre-game announcer without a thpeech impediment? Karroth' makes Dan Dierdorf feel much better about himself.

 
At 8:12 AM, Blogger Whitney said...

I think I saw some black shoes with a blue suit, too. Unforgivable.

 
At 8:59 AM, Blogger chip said...

I was flipping through SI's NBA preview yesterday and like anyone with a passion for social justice I counted the number of projected white starters in the league...anyone want to guess how many there are? This includes all South Americans and Europeans that are not of African descent.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger rob said...

i'll say 7. and i think that might be high.

 
At 9:49 AM, Blogger Geoff said...

Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Brad Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Adam Morrison, Chris Kaman, Anderson Varejo, Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Adrei Kirilenko, Peja Stoyakavic, Mike Miller...

 
At 10:09 AM, Blogger chip said...

I counted 29.

The preview page with photos of the projected 5 starters. I was on the john. Might have been off by one or two tops.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger Clark said...

What we're dealing with in the NBA is not just a problem - it's a crisis. David Stern could be doing much more to promote basketball to privileged suburban white kids.

 
At 10:21 AM, Blogger Jerry said...

Go Gators.

Dolphins LB Channing Crowder, who appears likely to start in the middle Sunday against the Giants with Zach Thomas ailing, says he didn't know until Tuesday that people in London speak English.

"I couldn’t find London on a map if they didn’t have the names of the countries," he said. "I swear to God. I don’t know what nothing is. I know Italy looks like a boot. I know London Fletcher. We did a football camp together. So I know him. That’s the closest thing I know to London. He’s black, so I’m sure he’s not from London. I’m sure that’s a coincidental name."

 
At 10:28 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Yikes. The British tabloids will have a field day with a lot of those guys.

 
At 11:13 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Some follow up wisdom from Channing:

After these comments, he was reminded that Dolphins receiver Marvin Allen is from London. That's when Crowder asked, "He's from London?" He then went on to proclaim, "I don't want to say he didn't look the part because that's a stereotype, but he didn't look the part. I heard him talk, and I thought he had a recorder and was just mouthing."

 
At 11:17 AM, Blogger rob said...

you'd think if you were that dumb you'd just close your mouth and smile. like teejay on the wrong side of a papal election.

 
At 11:29 AM, Blogger Geoff said...

Channing had me at "I sweat to God, I don't know what nothing is."

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger Geoff said...

Let's make that "swear."

 
At 11:48 AM, Blogger Whitney said...

Jimmy Swaggart sweats to God. Something fierce.

 
At 12:30 PM, Blogger Greg said...

When asked about who would play him in a movie, Channing replied, "There aren’t any actors out there, you know, fine enough. I don’t know. Got to be light-skinned.
Got to be big. Got to be fine. Got to be like a sex symbol. But nobody’s got dreads, ain’t nobody sweet enough.
Got to be animated. Like a Thundercat! Or a Transformer!"

 
At 1:31 PM, Blogger Mark said...

That's the best of the bunch. Really though, none of these should come as much of a surprise. He's been a quote machine since he first burst onto the scene as a freshman at UF. Between his mouth and his play, he is easily one of my favorite Gator football players of the past decade.

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Geoff said...

Two notes of interest:

1. The home Jerry, myself, Greg and "Sam" lived in for two years on Rhodes Street in Arlington was demolished (more than it already was) today. It is no more. Pour a little out.

2. I just saw this tidbit about what happened the last time the Redskins were 17 point underdogs in a game:

The last time Washington was a 17 point underdog was in 1995, when they faced the Cowboys in Dallas as a 17 point dog. The Redskins won that game 24-17.

I believe that was thanks to the cromulent quarterbacking of Gustavo Frerotte.

 
At 3:46 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I'll have to go to the old house for Halloween to explain to any neighbors who show up that "it's over".


Actually....it doesn't have to be over. There could still be a Halloween party on the demo site. It won't be the first time I've rocked out on a construction site.

 
At 11:40 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I am hoping Versus succeeds. U of New Mexico, where I went to law school, is playing tonight but against the World Series on Fox. I wish they had picked another night.

Anyway, I happened upon ESPN radio today and heard Gammons on with Mike Tirico and figured let's hear what Gammoms has to say about the Series. Tirico, however, asks him to talk about Fenway Park and hopw wonderful it is. I was thinking, who gives a shit about that old run down joint? Talk about the games!

I also stopped watching SportsCenter a while ago, especially after they starting outting on those long, Oprah-like segments about the difficulties of being [insert black, poor, gay, female, any other PC group here]. Enough already!

 

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