January 28, 2005

O, how far SportsCenter has fallen

"Nooooowwww on SportsCenter!" were probably my childhood's most repeated words. Everyday from fifth through ninth grade, I listened to Keith Olbermann open SportsCenter with that deep "Now" and then cheerful "on SportsCenter!" I memorized entire parts of Olbermann and Dan Patrick's shows, sneaking downstairs to watch the 11 p.m. edition every night and then at least two morning reruns. During the summers, the milk carton—whether it liked it or not—settled in as my microphone as I imitated my two favorite sportscasters over cereal. I bought and read their book, The Big Show. Twice. I read other broadcasters' books that they recommended. I even bought their action figures.

Well, Mattel never got around to making their toys, but I certainly considered requesting them. Yet only five years after my obsession peaked, the U.S.'s top-rated sports show doesn't even register on my radar. Olbermann left ESPN after having "napalmed all bridges," according to network execs, and has made stops at Fox Sports, NBC, and MSNBC.

Patrick remains on the show but devotes his best work to his radio program, lacking the patience to keep up with the constantly changing graphics, sets, and synthesized music that has resulted in a radically different SportsCenter every six months. Forget ESPN HD. This is ESPN ADD.

The increasingly cheesy aesthetics (what high schooler suggested the animated "SC" logo breaking through the viewer's TV screen?) would be excusable if the show had maintained its journalistic standards of comprehensive news, highlights, analysis, and reporting. Instead, ESPN now resorts to watered-down, VH1-inspired content.

Rather than displaying complete box scores and team records after highlights, we get a simple line score displayed for two seconds. Why? Because the producers think it's more important to have a three-minute Top 10 list and another four minutes of teasers than to afford us with a 42-minute informative broadcast.

Want in-depth reporting? Well, SportsCenter doesn't have too much smart stuff anymore, but it does have a six-minute segment on Dennis Quaid's Miramax film The Rookie. Don't forget the two-minute long quiz games with one-word answers from unexcited athletes.

Provocative analysis? There's none of that here, but the show does feature plenty former athletes who would rather emphasize their predictions about "'Sheed" and "The Diesel" than speak coherent English.

The current anchors have followed suit with a smugness that any neighborhood wiseass could match: "He's no beanie baby," says Linda Cohn, followed by John Anderson's "He gave up the cigarettes, but he's still smokin'!" and "He's running like there's people chasing him."

To match the show's overdone audiovisual effects, the sportscasters pound fists and shout stale phrases in an apparent effort to show that they're more important than the topics they cover. Apparently, ESPN producers support the show's idiocy, urging the competitors on the sportscaster-reality show Dream Job to come up with some snappier catchphrases rather than encouraging professionalism and well written highlight leads.

Honestly, when I watch SportsCenter, all I'm looking for is the baseball finals, and now I'm left with a South Dakota high school variety show. All the anchors try to one-up each other with Seinfeld references forced between Ben Wallace rebounds, attempting to prove their worthiness in Keith's and Dan's shadows.

When Olbermann and Patrick were tag-team partners on SportsCenter, the entire show had a witty, seat-of-the-pants chemistry. The anchors verbally sparred with each other without forgetting or diminishing the topic at hand, and they would play with sports' most overused clichés ("He's day-to-day? We're all day-to-day!")

Most of all, they were informative while being funny, teaching a 10-year-old sports fanatic who had seen less than ten live sporting events in his lifetime all the references, from Monty Python to baseball's obscurest footnotes, that one would need to qualify as a sports nut.

Patrick, who simply says "Gone" for a homerun call, recently said in an interview that sportscasters have used up the viewers' lifetime supply of patience with their attempts to be consciously funny. He, in fact, doesn't even use some of his favorite catchphrases, realizing that the rest of the business has ruined them for everybody.

If only ESPN execs would listen to the brains behind SportsCenter's best years.