My old friend Phil Meyer called it right when he commented in this article about ESPN.com entering Chicago. Phil called it another “nail in newspapers’ coffin.” ESPN’s spokesman, Paul Melvin took a much politer tack. “As a company, we are fans of newspapers, and not believers they are going away. They face challenges that will force them to evolve, ……But those challenges have, really, very little to do with us specifically — but rather about the way media and people’s consumption habits are changing.”
I think Melvin is saying ESPN loves newspapers and if we kick their ass, it’s just the environment, not us.
ESPN.com Chicago and ESPN.Boston are genuine threats to newspapers as the biggest, most powerful brand in sports marches across America. (ESPN. Dallas/Fort Worth debuted yesterday) Sports has been an under appreciated asset of newspapers for a long time. Too many editors looked on sports as a necessary evil. My roots are in sports, but all I needed was two World Series titles in Minneapolis to show me the power of sports to sell newspapers and draw online viewers.
I’ve been saying for months now, the way I’d fight the publishing cutbacks in Detroit would be with a combination web/print sports product. I have felt for some time now the newspaper sports web sites are way too hard to navigate. Sports should be the centerpiece of newspaper efforts to rejuvenate themselves. I have been very wishy-washy about pay walls. I’ve gradually moved toward thinking they are bad idea. I am convinced they are a horrible idea for sports unless the added value is phenomenal. (I should point out ESPN adds that value with ESPN Insider) With all the competition for sports fans, I think that super-high level added value is going to be tough to find. I have always believed sports is central to building community, which most newspapers say is the key task. Sports may also be the major link to mass for a lot of newspapers too.
Now is the time to boost sports coverage for newspapers, not shrink it or put it behind pay walls. I do think the proposed alliance by several regional newspapers is great idea and I am thrilled my favorite sports editor, Glen Crevier, is at the center of it. That alliance can allow newspapers to avoid duplication on events like the Masters. The real future of local sports for a newspaper like The Star Tribune lies in covering the Vikings, Twins and even the lowly Timberwolves better than any current or future competitor.
A FEW DAYS AGO I read the second entry of the new Ombudsman column on ESPN. I never made any bones about the excellence of Le Anne Schreiber the former occupant of the job. I thought her ethics discussions were worth the price of admission. I still have to say I was blown away by Don Ohlmeyer’s column on the three-man booth. It was part history, part analysis, and a really good part education. I’ve been recommending the column to anyone interested in broadcast. And for a TV guy, Ohlmeyer can write. Check this one out: “Tumbling out of “Chucky” is a zest for the game, a competitor’s heart and a storyteller’s soul.”
I really resonated with Ohlmeyer’s criticism that the voices of Ron Jaworski and John Gruden sound too much alike. “With ESPN’s new trio, there’s no confusing the analysts with the play-by-play, but often my ears had difficulty distinguishing between Gruden and Jaworski — except when Jaws reverts to his “Philadelphia” pronunciations. It’s a technical trick, but that need for distinction could be addressed, potentially, by an audio equalizer putting more bass in one voice and more treble in the other.” Wow, let’s hit that treble button guys! I love insightful stuff like that.
I got a kick out of this historical reference. “In addition, there must be distinctive points of view. With Gifford-Cosell-Meredith, there was no question about perspective. Frank, always the optimist, thought most everything about the league was terrific. Dandy Don thought the players were gladiators, and the owners rascals. Howard, cynical by nature, thought the whole mess corrupt — except for the things that met with his approval. “
Now it is true, as one of my friends mentioned, that a lot of people thought that early crew was way too clownish to call a game, but I thought Ohlmeyer addressed that when he talked about the importance of an announcing crew “letting the broadcast breathe.”
That Ohlmeyer piece could form the spine of a great play-by-play course.
SINCE I AM WRITING about ESPN it seemed a good time to mention my favorite Tuesday morning guilty pleasure. I cannot miss reading Pat Forde, a former newspaper scribe, who writes a wonderful column every Tuesday called The Forde Yard Dash. Get it? Forty yard dash? A knee slapper to be sure and it is just like the old days when newspapers columnist used hopeless puns on their names to title their columns.
Despite that little self-indulgence, Forde uses 40 proper nouns to entertain, inform and wise-crack about college football. He is irreverent, but not stick-it-in-your-eye disrespectful. He can really turn a phrase, and I walk away amused and smarter. It’s what sports journalism needs to be in 2009–information with some attitude.
(For the ethics crowd I have this disclosure: My son works at ESPN in Bristol as a production assistant.)