Late October has historically been its own version of Christmas for sports fans — a window offering the World Series, both pro and college football, and the enticing scent of NBA basketball and NHL hockey.
Throw in bigger, higher-resolution TVs and technology that can zoom in on a fastball’s laces or report the speed of every pitch, and we should be basking in an age of couch-hugging nirvana.
In truth, though, this is the best and worst of times for sports viewers, the benefits dampened by a cacophony of shrill voices. A decade after Fox stole the NFL and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” became the most influential cultural force in sports, the art of sportscasting — honed by the likes of Vin Scully and Jim McKay — has given way to a collection of wannabe comics and barely grown-up frat boys.
Between the sound of cracking bats and crunching hits, the air is filled with pre-game shows that come across like bawdy animal houses (down to Fox weather/pin-up girl Jillian Barberie) and sports talk that resembles a debate between belligerent drunks in a bar.
The ooze has even permeated the games themselves, where athletes pose and posture to make that night’s highlights package. The practice has become so ubiquitous that when I play basketball with a group of other middle-aged guys, if one of us is lucky enough to throw in a better-than-usual shot, someone invariably begins humming the “SportsCenter” theme.
Like most changes in the broadcast spectrum, this one has occurred in stages. Facing pressure to attract the younger viewers advertisers want, networks have pushed to make their sports programming “edgy” — one of those words that is too often really just a synonym for “irritating.”
ESPN also came to the conclusion that because everyone was running the same clips, the delivery could be fresher and more irreverent, with hosts Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick pointing the way in the 1990s. Unfortunately, by the time Craig Kilborn left the cable net to headline his own late-night comedy show, something had been terribly lost in the translation.
Pretty soon, it was hard to tell if anchors were giving scores or auditioning for the Groundlings. Faster than you can say Dick Vitale, ex-coaches and players were suddenly shouting at each other all across the dial — from color commentary to pre-game shows — emitting grunts and groans more severe than anything emanating from the field.
“It’s as if it’s all programmed for the least thoughtful fan … for a drunken frat party,” says NBC’s Bob Costas, one of the few remaining sober voices in the sports space. “Both on the field and behind the mike, the distinction between style and schtick has been completely lost.”
To Olbermann, currently responsible for one of the few creditable hours on MSNBC with his “Countdown” show, the prevailing style reflects a lack of understanding among execs and the next generation of sports anchors, who didn’t get that his snappy repartee actually had a purpose. Looking over what that partnership with Patrick has spawned, he quips that his own private place in purgatory surely awaits him.
“The style was a method of conveying information,” he says. “A lot of the people who are trying to do this now are not naturally funny… but have adopted this. If you want to do a late-night talk show, go into comedy.”
Among the more unsettling aspects of TV sports’ pandering to youth, Olbermann suggests, is an objectification of women designed for “The Man Show” crowd. Another is the heightened sense of life-or-death importance, virtually obliterating any perspective — to the point where pundits almost egg on those who would pillory a Chicago Cubs fan for touching a foul ball in the midst of Florida’s game-six rally.
You don’t have to be an old fogy or an egghead, Costas adds, to appreciate what Scully, McKay or Jack Whitaker brought to the broadcast booth — the concept that there was a way to communicate excitement not predicated solely on volume.
“They offered an adult take,” Costas says. “The idea was not to be a clown, or the loudest guy in the bunch…In broadcasting in general there’s a dumbed-down tone, and sportscasting hasn’t escaped that.”
Indeed, the same virus has infected radio and even print. Take the Los Angeles Times, whose sports pages were once highlighted by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray. Today, that section is home to the melodramatic preaching of Bill Plaschke and stand-up act of T.J. Simers, whose cut-rate Catskills column amuses almost nobody except, apparently, Times sports editor Bill Dwyre.
Blathering sportswriters, in fact, now amount to a popular form of cheap programming, such as ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” whose decibel level makes “The McLaughlin Group” sound like a lullaby.
Admittedly, change is always greeted with a degree of skepticism from the old (or older) guard. Reminiscing about the launch of “Monday Night Football” in his book “Roone: A Memoir,” the late ABC Sports impresario Roone Arledge asked whether there was “any law that said games had to be announced as though they were being played in a cathedral?”
Arledge might have had a point in the 1960s, but the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction the pertinent question now, it seems, is do games have to sound as though they’re being called at a bachelor party?
Moreover, if true broadcasters can appeal to everyone, this latest breed of sportscaster is exclusionary — courting the casual viewer (witness the rock concerts during halftime of last spring’s NBA championship series) while assuming that hard-core fans are too addicted to tune-out.
“It’s all designed for those kids,” Olbermann says. “I can’t watch it anymore.”
Of course, this indictment of sportscasting amounts to swimming against the tide given the growing emphasis on reaching young men. And as has been demonstrated again this year, in their best moments the games themselves can overcome almost any absurdity thrown at them. All it takes is an improbable, drama-laden run by the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox to recharge our jets and capture our imagination.
Such highlights are rare, however, amid a daily parade of lowlights and high-pitched howls, of faux anger and real inanity. Yet barring an unlikely U-turn back toward calm and civility, those of us who consider ourselves sports fans will either have to get into the spirit or find another way to occupy our time. So here goes.
Nah, sorry, can’t do it. See you at the old fans’ home. I’ll be the one wearing the earplugs.