Saturday, April 9, 2005
The Future of ESPN
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By Greg Wyshynski
It's been 28 years since an OBGYN had the good sense to slice my mother open and yank me out, nine months after I was conceived and moments before I burst from her torso like a Ridley Scott xenomorph.
Yet it was only yesterday when I began to feel, well, old. Not old in the sense that I can't hang with the kids — I'm down with your 50-Cents and your Fat Joes and what-have-yous, doncha know...
And not old in the sense that my body is starting to dramatically hurdle towards the sunset of my life — my hairline may be creeping away, but it hasn't made a full-on break for the border yet.
But after reading a piece by Darren Rovell on ESPN.com
, I felt like time has suddenly passed me by. I felt like my father, walking into a Nobody Beats the Wiz in Central New Jersey over a decade ago and realizing that, for the first time, there were more CDs than cassette tapes in the store.
It's a feeling that hits us all at a certain point in our lives, when your car stalls at the intersection of Comprehension Avenue and Ingenuity Drive.
It's that moment when you realize that yes, old-timer, technology really does scare the crap out of you.
Rovell's piece — which marked the 10th anniversary of ESPN's equally insipid and inspirational website — dealt with the coming information revolution in sports fan culture:
"In the next decade, fans will still be able to watch 'SportsCenter' and they'll still be able to load up their favorite highlights from their cubicles at work, but they will also be able to do it all on their cell phones. It's clear that the winner who emerges from all the expected advances in technology over the next decade will be the fan. For example, fans at the Kentucky-Michigan State game this past weekend could have called friends watching at home to see if Patrick Sparks' shot at the buzzer was in fact a three-pointer. In the future, fans in the stands might be able to see the replay on their phones before a ruling is made."
Call me old-fashioned, but that just blows my mind. That's some serious Jetson's stuff right there. What's next: is Rosy the Robot going to whip me up some chili and cheese fries in the Foodarackacycle during halftime?
Then there's the plan to allow fans to request video on-demand from, like, any game ever played in the history of sports. Including rainouts.
And there's the plan to have ESPN programming beamed directly into cell phones, so you can literally watch yourself at the game holding up a "SportsCenter is Next" sign ... while watching yourself on "SportsCenter."
Part of my astonishment towards this technology is personal bias. My cell phone has a pay-as-you-go "emergency" plan; I couldn't live without a landline in my house. I don't own a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry. The extent of my mobile technology is playing video poker while on the toilet.
I also work for a newspaper that focuses more energy on hardcopy than software. Our bread is buttered by the local businesses that pony up for print advertising. Our website allows us to archive stories and let readers outside our coverage area to follow local news. But by no means does it offer the kind of complete news picture our paper does.
Evidently, we're a dinosaur ... or at least soon to be one. Rovell reports that only six percent of sports executives think fans will obtain their sports information from newspapers in five years; 25 percent predicted they would receive it from a wireless device.
This revolution goes beyond how people get their news. It's also about who will produce and report the news. Blogging is the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. Podcasting and satellite technology are going to allow for niche programming that could never financially survive in the mainstream. But with limited costs and minimal effort, media could become tailored to the individual, focused to the point where a Redskins fan could not only listen to a Redskins-only show, not only listen to a Redskins' special teams-only show, not only listen to a Redskins' special teams' punter-only show, but listen to a Redskins' special teams' punter coaches-only show.
And it'd still be more entertaining than Colin Cowherd...
If there's one thing I've consistently seen over the last decade, it's that as media becomes more fractured, so does society. Our parents grew up with three networks, five radio stations, and one newspaper. We're in a cultural moment in which there are 600 networks, 200 radio stations, and an Internet that offers every newspaper, magazine, webzine, newsletter, message board, and a blog about some woman and how funny her three stupid cats are.
We have no idea what we're talking about any more. Half of us are reading the same information — the "mainstream," for lack of a more pathetically overplayed term — while the other half is reading partisan viewpoints about sports, religion, and politics that are short on facts, long on minutiae, and pretty much turning public discourse into a gossip rag filled with 30-second scandals that are forgotten after the fourth "no comment." We've all retreated to our little corners of the Internet — message boards, fan sites, local online newspapers — that focus solely on our favorite teams and players rather than the big picture. Why sit through 25 articles on golf when you can head to a hockey board and get right to the latest example of how they're going to frack the game up this fall? Why sift through pages of baseball notes when all you want to read about is Michael Vick's nom de plume?
ESPN.com was one of the first corporate sports sites to recognize these fractures and try to tape them back together again. Its message boards were expansive yet team-focused, offering the chance to read about local teams on specific "clubhouse" pages and then rant about them on the boards. A few years ago, ESPN took that concept to the next level by creating its "SportsNation" cabal — a series of message boards filled with registered users, who could be prodded and polled to produce instant feedback on the issues of the day.
As technology changes, there seems to be one thing that does not: ESPN still thinks it is the reason sports exist, and not vice versa.
How else can one read this comment from John Papanek, senior vice president and editorial director of ESPN New Media, in Rovell's piece:
"Not all sports fans have an opportunity to come visit Bristol, Conn., but over the next decade, through ESPN.com, our readers are going to be able to virtually experience what it's like to be at the national intellectual sports capital of the world."
The "intellectual sports capital of the world?"
Has this guy ever even read Bill Simmons?
I've spent time on the ESPN SportsNation boards. Well, wasted time to be more precise. The last time I dropped in — over a year ago, I think — "SportsNation" still seemed like a collection of 12-year-olds whose "intellectual sports capital" seemed to be limited to "Randy Moss is teh best WR evr" and "Jeter is sooooooooooooooooo gay."
Will this stop ESPN from attempting to turn this collection of knuckleheads and Internet geeks into something more than they are?
Of course not. As Rovell wrote, these people are going to be the official voices of their respective teams:
"Papanek envisions the day when Yankees and Red Sox fans will be in ESPN.com chat rooms watching another classic game on their computers. As these fans chat, characters who look like them mouth their opinions in real time as the fans talk into headsets. Papanek says fans potentially would then be able to rank the other fans, with the most vocal, passionate, and knowledgeable fans for each team then serving as 'team fan representatives.'"
And now, an exclusive look at what ESPN SportsNation will look like in five years:
soxfan4lif: "LOL...nice play, A-Fraud!"
torreizgod: "U R A ******BAG!!!!!!!!!"
soxfan4lif: "Whatevr...Jeter is teh gay!!!!"
torreizgod: "F U!!! WE HAVE 228 WORLD SERIES TITLES, YOU A$!!!"
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the "national intellectual sports capital of the world..."