ESPN Make-Over

As reported by The Big Lead and elsewhere, ESPN is making some changes. ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief, John Papanek has been removed from his position, and the Worldwide Leader is off searching for new blood to fill the post. Meanwhile, the powers that be for ESPN’s broadcasts of Monday Night Football have, thankfully, dispensed with Joe Theisman and replaced him with the Polish Popgun, Ron Jaworski.

Speculation is certainly rampant about both moves–though in the case of MNF, it seems people are just relieved that Joe is out and Jaws is in, and the question of why ESPN is doing this is secondary. The Curious Mechanism isn’t one for actually reporting news, but there’s a few things to be gleaned from these maneuvers, I think, and conjecturing from other people’s reporting is something more up our alley.

After the break, the Curious Mechanism’s speculation on both moves. (By the way, this is a pretty substantial post. I mean, lengthy. Fair warning.)

Monday Night Football

Allowing our Philly bias to set in fully, let me say: I love Ron Jaworski. He’s a solid analyst, clearly understanding the game he used to play, and he speaks well enough to express the thoughts he has after watching nothing but game film from what appears to be every game all season long. Oh, plus, Jaws wore pretty girly looking glasses last year, which made everything just a bit funnier than it needed to be. That’s going the extra mile.

Dan Shanoff wrote this about the move:

Ron Jaworski to MNF: He will go down as the best analyst in the history of the show. Hopefully, it will finally affirm that the average MNF viewer doesn’t want more entertainment — they want more analysis.

(And yet, the USA Today story about the switch said that Joey T was TOO much about the in-game analysis, and not enough about analysis of the other news around the league. Fair enough: Jaws would be as expert about that as anyone, and you never got the sense that Joey T was comfortable riffing on the storylines from the rest of the league — of course, game analysts rarely are, which is what makes Jaws such a good fit here and what makes next season’s development of the show so intriguing: Sounds like they want MNF to be as much a three-hour talk about the week in the NFL as it is a three-hour talk about the game at hand.)

If USA Today is correct, it’s an ambitious plan. Monday Night Football would essentially become the game mixed with This Week in Football. Kornheiser is equipped to handle this kind of task, and Jaws is certainly more prepared to talk off the cuff about what’s goin’ on ’round the league than Theisman was. If the mix is good (and I think it should be) the broadcast has a genuine chance to be phenomenal. Jaws is a loose guy, and by most reports, Kornheiser’s a bit thin-skinned and not so uber-confident as Pardon the Interruptionwould leave you to believe. It’s possible that working with the ever-serious Theisman kept Tony from really doing what he does best: nonsense and shenanigans in regards to sports. Jaws can handle the heavy lifting of the analysis, but still keep things moving enough to make Tony comfortable.

If Jaws is as good as he was with Dick Vermeil last year, and as good as he’s been for Eagles preseason games for the past several years, he’ll be great. If Tony can turn things around and be half as good in the booth as he is on PTI, then the two of them, with the steady play-by-play of Mike Tirico, should be one of the best broadcast teams in years. Really, I could not be more excited about this.

 

Mr. Thursday for ESPN.com EICNew Editor In Chief

ESPN.com doesn’t have a new editor-in-chief yet, and so I have no one’s picture to associate with that segment. That said, I’m submitting my resume. To the right is my picture. Yes, I own a gun, but it shoots lazors and not bullets, and I was only using it to save the princess and the galaxy. I also use it for smuggling.

Again, to quote from others, the Big Lead did a fine job of pointing out some of ESPN’s problems that will need addressing from the new man in charge:

* Gene Wojo as the .com’s top columnist (aka ‘National Voice.’). He seems to be the guy they are trying to promote as lead columnist … [ED. HOW ABOUT …Pat Forde? Wright Thompson? Buster Olney?]

* Still-struggling Page 2. It’s been on life support for months, and bloggers have been hammering its irrelevance compared to the days of Simmons, Wiley, Whitlock, and Hunter S. Thompson. […]

* That blasted video that automatically plays as soon as you get to the page. Ok, we kid, but seriously – anyone else really perturbed by this?

The third item there aside (though, yes, it is annoying), I think the first two are related issues. Namely, ESPN.com has a dearth of quality sportswriters. The “national voices” section of the front page features four writers. First and foremost is Bill Simmons, whose mugshot dominates the bar, and then below him are Gene Wojciechowski, Pat Forde, and Jemele Hill. You can only “see” one of these people at a time–you have to tab over to see the other two, and for whatever reason, Wojo is nearly always on top.

Like the Big Lead, I have no idea why this is. Perhaps it’s a matter of loyalty, as (according to Wikipedia), Wojciechowski has worked for ESPN, in some form, since 1992. Wojciechowski isn’t particularly interesting, and he seems to be gradually moving to the “crotchety old sportswriter” phase of his career, being ESPNs response to the Murray Chasses, Mike Lupicas, and Bill Conlins of the world.

Pat Forde writes an excellent niche column on college football (Forde Yard Dash, I think it’s called), and I’m told his college basketball work is good, too. When he strays away from the NCAA, though, he gets himself in trouble.

Jemele Hill is still pretty new to ESPN.com, and to Page 2, and, I honestly wonder if she isn’t there as some sort of cop to affimative action. The other three national columnists are white men. She’s a black woman. I don’t read her much, either, but she seems to shoot for “stun value”, often enough. Her most recent common is about how Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan, if that gives you an idea.

The fact of the matter is that Page 2 is in trouble, and the rest of ESPN isn’t too far behind. The famous names from Page 2’s startup in 2000 were Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter S. Thompson. Wiley cut his teeth writing feature stories for Sports Illustrated back when SI mattered. Thompson had written about whatever the hell he wanted for several decades in Rolling Stone, and he was now stretching his crazed pen to new material. Whitlock and Simmons were up and coming sportswriters with small but growing niche audiences. Putting their obvious talent alongside the established duo of Wiley and Thompson was a brilliant maneuver, and both Whitlock’s and Simmons’ careers took off because of it.

ESPN started to get a bit hacky, though. I’m not sure what started it, but after just a couple of years, guys like Scoop Jackson, Jim Caple, and DJ Gallo started showing up writing Variations on the Same Article. Wiley and Thompson died. Whitlock mouthed off about his coworkers, and Simmons cashed in on his popularity and started listening to his editors too much, becoming “safe”.

The formula was still great: two established, acclaimed writers, and a group of young, up and coming talented writers. The problem is, the “veteran” writer on the staff is Simmons, who is stylistically so unique (at least, when he’s not copying himself), that he’s not a good “Godfather” type of presence. And, I wonder, is there anyone who could be the Wiley and Thompson anymore?

A lot is made about how no TV shows get super high ratings anymore because there are so many different options available for watching. People aren’t watching less TV, they’re just watching less NBC/ABC/CBS and more Fox, CNN, Discovery, ESPN, TNT, and so on. Similarly, Sports Illustrated and other major magazines have suffered. I could be mistaken, but I don’t know if there really is a preeminent magazine or newspaper writer out there who writes on anything at all, let alone sport and culture. But they need a “big name” writer, and one who has actually earned their acclaim. Beneath the big name there must be ranks of young, talented writers who are both able and eager to prove themselves.

Right now, they’ve got a mishmash of people with the same personality. Reading Page 2 is like trying to deal with the Borg (I have NO shame in that reference whatsoever). ESPN has the budget. They can afford to do better than this. (The hacky sportswriter in me really wants to add: “They can’t afford not to.” Pretend I did, or pretend I didn’t. Whatever makes YOU happy, dear reader).

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1 Comment

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One response to “ESPN Make-Over

  1. virginia dobbins

    I like Joe T. I thought he did a good job. I kinda miss him. I like Ron J. too.

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