While Fox Sports 1 has been mounting a national alternative — including a talkshow that should even make Regis Philbin blush — ESPN has been gradually adding to its arsenal, signing former Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, numbers guru Nate Silver and Keith Olbermann, whose nightly sports program, “Olbermann,” made its ESPN2 debut Monday. Olbermann is a notoriously high-maintenance employee, and as the New York Times noted in a profile where everyone is still all smiles, he’s put many stops between now and his last ESPN gig 16 years ago. Still, he does bring a smart, playful approach to a sports space that seems increasingly simple-minded and blustery. So until he gets angry and quits, this ought to be pretty good.
Admittedly, Olbermann’s style — honed during all those years delivering “special comments” on MSNBC — translated into a sports context can feel a little bit like using a rhetorical bazooka to kill a housefly. Including Whitlock as a guest, he opened the show with nearly 20 minutes devoted to New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, skewering the media — and specifically the New York Daily News’ beat reporter, Manish Mehta — for creating a faux controversy around the injury to quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Yet Olbermann wasn’t wrong when he called this a “time of media madness, where controversy has replaced reporting.” And that’s especially true in terms of sports coverage, which caters to the loudest voices in sportstalk radio and those columnists willing to engage in the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling for a few minutes on “Around the Horn.”
Of course, ESPN is a major player in fostering that environment, and the network is also having its journalistic credentials questioned, having backed out of a “Frontline” documentary about the NFL and concussions for reasons that remain suspicious, given the network’s multi-billion-dollar investment in the league. While it’s the kind of target Olbermann would have found difficult to resist in another place, at another time, that particular controversy went overlooked in his first show. No sense biting the hand that feeds you right away, presumably.
Instead, Olbermann amused himself with highlights, funny videos, a modified “Worst Persons of the World” segment featuring sports figures, and a lot of flashbacks to Olbermann’s early bad-mustache days at ESPN. There was a solid interview with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and the chat with Whitlock, which other than their exchange about race and sports — and Olbermann lauding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for badmouthing the Daily News’ Mehta — was as close to politics as the host ventured.
Still, Olbermann seemed to find largely the right tone, mixing sports and comedy, taking advantage of his writing skills (Sanchez has a “bruised right shoulder joint — by Spike Lee,” he quipped) and positioning himself as a sports-inflected counterweight to latenight talk.
“Olbermann” premiered coming out of U.S. Open tennis coverage, and while the host already looks pretty comfortable already, the program has a week or so to find its footage before the ripest of targets — the NFL, college football, the baseball playoffs — kick in after Labor Day. Certainly, there’s room to tinker with the balance — fewer goofy highlights, say, and more on issues like performance-enhancing drugs, which would capitalize on Olbermann’s journalistic chops without deviating from the basic formula.
Olbermann closed with his signature tribute to Edward R. Murrow — “Good night, and good luck” — but given the modest rating demands on this secondary channel and how well the format suits him, he might not need much of the latter. As for just how many good nights the Olbermann/ESPN2 marriage has in it, with Olbermann, that’s always the several-million-dollar question.