ESPN Hands Out Pinkslips But Fans Mourn The Departures Of Network Legends

by Tim Jeffery

In 1979 four men became the faces of early ESPNChris Berman, Bob Ley, Dick Vitale and the late Tom Mees.

Berman, Ley and Vitale are now in their 38th year with the network. Thousands of others have followed…announcers and athletes that have helped shape what has for quite some time been simply “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”. Collectively, they built the network that forever changed the way Americans watch television.

There were no 24-hour networks back in 1979 – not ABC, CBS, NBC, not even HBO. Fox hadn’t been thought of – even CNN and MTV hadn’t gotten off the mark when ESPN debuted at 7:00 PM, Friday, September 7, 1979.

There was lots of kick boxing, racquetball, volleyball, and the ever-popular Australian Rules Football. Throw in some NCAA soccer and NCAA tape-delayed football and you’ll have an idea of what life was like in Bristol, Connecticut back then.

Fast forward to what became a day that will live in infamy.

Mark April 26, 2017  as ESPN’s darkest.

Some 100 layoffs, many big name writers and former athletes are a sign of the times. There can be no denying corporate decisions made at the top, have led to this demise. Money never seemed a concern as the industry leader tried to match its terrific college sports coverage with pro sports.

Start with Andy Katz, as good a college basketball reporter as any, and a fixture for some 18 years. Ed Werner brought us great insights on the NFL for the past 17 seasons. Baseball writer Jayson Stark and radio host Danny Kanell felt the pinch on Wednesday as well.

Former athletes like ex-quarterback Trent Dilfer and Maryland basketball great Len Elmore are gone.

Overpaying for the rights to NBA games is at the top of the mistake list. In fact ESPN is currently in deals with the NFL for $1.9 billion per year for 10 years to air games and in step with the NBA for $1.4 billion per year for nine years. Their original deal with the NBA was for $400 million a year. ESPN has never broadcast a Super Bowl.

Today people buy a Roku, maybe purchase SlingTV or fuboTV to watch sports, not plopping down hundreds of dollars monthly for satellite or cable.

Twitter blew up Wednesday with so many wondering why talents such as Jamele Hill, Sage Steele and Stephen A. Smith survived. All have much less tenure than the above mentioned but all bring personality and storytelling ability. It almost appears ESPN kept the carnival barkers while cutting many of the people who actually gather the information people like Smith hyperventilate about.

On a lighter side, credit ex-ESPN talk show host Tony Bruno for tweeting those left behind at the World Wide Leader will be assigned to cover LeBron James 24/7.

ESPN chief John Skipper said Wednesday the company wants to provide distinctive content all the time on multiple screens, with more personality-oriented “SportsCenter” broadcasts, and is keeping people best suited to the new strategy.

“Our goal continues to be to maximize our unparalleled scale in every medium with storytelling that stands out and makes a difference,” Skipper said in a memo to employees. “We are well-equipped to thrive going forward by embracing those themes.”

When I watch sports I’m not looking for that.

Give me the folks who have played the game or have huge respect among the athletes they cover. Exactly what Dilfer, Stark or Kanell brought to thousands of guys like me.

It feels like Fox Sports has become the leader in the industry now. Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless, both former ESPN talking heads saw the writing on the wall and left for Fox. The Herd With Colin Cowherd at noon EDT on FS1 is easily a better sports-talk show than any ESPN offers on its array of channels.

Bayless teams with Shannon Sharpe for the “Undisputed” later in the day on FS1. It too tops ESPN’s Highly Questionable, Pardon the Interruption and Around The Horn during similar time frames.

That PTI show with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon was certainly one of its kind and highly successful but ESPN tried to make every one of its afternoon shows just like it.

That has proven to be a disaster because nobody in Bristol seems to understand the debate doesn’t make the show, it’s the debaters.

Even the 17 year run of Mike & Mike, one of the most successful on-air tandems in sports TV/radio history appears to be coming to an end. That show with Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic has been a staple for so many sports fans every morning since 2000. It has always been on for background noise at the very least as I readied for my work day.

Greenberg, a Northwestern grad and the journalist of the two, is set to land his own New York-based morning TV show on ESPN in coming months. Golic will undoubtedly be moved to a lesser role, likely radio for ESPN.

No one will ever forget the memories of back, back, back, back from Berman calling a home-run, whether the Home Run Derby or as a play-by-play guy early on. ESPN’s award show, The ESPY’s, in early summer, mixed with laughter and sadness. The touching speeches by Jimmy Valvano, Stuart Scott and Craig Sager, all succumbing to cancer way too soon.

Vitale screaming “Awesome Baby With A Capital A.”  Actually seeing the faces of brilliant columnists from around the country like Bob Ryan (Boston Globe), Mitch Albom (Detroit Free Press) and Dan Le Batard (Miami Herald) on Sunday Morning’s Sports Reporters.

Jay Bilas talking college basketball or Gary Danielson (at the network a couple years before moving on to CBS) on college football are not only an easy listen but ones who bring it at the very best level. I could listen to either spin their knowledge for hours.

The highly entertaining shenanigans of Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard previewing a Saturday of College Football.

There was no Twitter to make catch phrases from Dan Patrick, Keith Olberman or the late Scott to go viral. But ESPN become a cultural icon in the 1990’s anyway.

Sadly for sports junkies much of that is gone. And what happened this week likely means this is only the start of bleaker days.






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