ESPN Coverage Overcrowded With Mediocrity
By Todd A. Mayes
Jul 26, 2009 - 5:51:42 AM

LOS ANGELES—As 59-year-old Tom Watson tried unsuccessfully to become the oldest major winner in golf last Sunday, not to mention maybe the greatest individual sports story in the history of the world, it was disturbing to see the weak ABC golf coverage.  Actually, it was ESPN’s golf coverage, to be accurate, since ABC gutted its sports department years ago, turning what’s left of their televised sports over to their sister station.


That’s what is so mystifying ”“ that ESPN would superimpose its logo in the corner of the screen for a major championship they treated like a second-rate event.  Of course it’s not as if they purposely covered it bare bones and amateurishly, it just came across that way.  But surprised I shouldn’t be, as I have noticed lately that ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader, has made the mistake of thinking more is better rather than better is better.  If anyone has tuned into Baseball Tonight (and really, why would you) recently you may have noticed they are suffering from the same affliction: the more so-called experts on the broadcast guarantee you nothing if they don’t really know what they are talking about.  More on that later but for now back to golf.


The All-Star cast put together for this year’s British Open was similar to putting any All-Star cast together for just one weekend: nobody knowing their role which makes everyone talk more without saying anything informative because they don’t know when they will get to speak again.  For the record ABC/ESPN employed safe but milquetoast anchor Mike Tirico to preside over the often disjointed broadcast with former major champions Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange and Tom Weiskopf.  Reporting from the course was Andy North and Judy Rankin with another part-time host, Terry Gannon, sitting in the clubhouse presumably just waiting for this week’s Senior British Open to start and, oh yeah, to host the BBC’s Peter Alliss for about an hour each day.


With only Weiskopf as a past British Open winner, it was not surprising that he seemed to be the most credible analyst as the others remarked much too quickly on many shots as “that’s really well done right there” or “great shot” way before the ball had come to rest off the green.  Azinger, for all the talk of his witty analysis, has never struck that entertaining chord with me, seeming forced rather than genuine.  It’s like when CBS hired Lanny Wadkins because he was known as wild and funny with a major championship.  What CBS and now ESPN didn’t realize is there is PGA Tour funny (which really isn’t funny at all) and actual funny.  For some reason the country club humor doesn’t translate to mainstream America.  The same goes for Strange, who did seem more opinionated than before but often missed with premature calls and talked too much without saying a lot. 


As for North, he should be applauded for parlaying the U.S. Open winning him twice (1978 and 1985) ”“ rather than the other way around ”“ into a longstanding partnership with ESPN’s golf coverage where he is allowed to say nothing that you or I couldn’t come up with.  Rankin, one of the few keepers in the ESPN stable, was her usual spot-on self, saying a lot with few words—what a concept.


I understand that ESPN-bashing is a popular pastime in the age of the Internet but the criticism would ring true if the British Open had been carried by PBS, TBS or BET.  It only seems logical that if your golf programming is comprised of only a few weeks out of the year, wouldn’t it be wiser to go with a bare bones approach as opposed to what we got?  It seems as if ABC/ESPN would have gotten more bang for their buck had they left Azinger, Strange and North on this side of the pond and made the show about golf and not washed up, out of touch, one-time wonders.


The same goes for baseball, too.

This may sound like piling on but I think the suits in Bristol can take it.  Unfortunately, this must be how things are done at the worldwide leader these days as ESPN’s Baseball Tonight employs the same strategy as their British Open golf coverage, which is to hire as many retired ballplayers whether they are good in front of the camera or not.  Having “not even close to ready for prime time players” such as Eduardo Perez, Fernando Vina and Eric Young regurgitate the same tired old clichés is certainly made me tune out and tune in to the fledgling, albeit successful, MLB Network.


The difference in the two philosophies is as distinct as the “watch-ability” of the two shows.  MLB Network has chosen to make the star of the show baseball, as in lots of highlights—not just home runs, strikeouts and double plays.  And when analysis is needed it is delivered with clarity and thoughtful insight by ex-major leaguers who take their job seriously and are not just there to collect a paycheck, model their latest six-button suit and advance their post-baseball careers.


Baseball Tonight on the other hand, tries to make the stars of the show their analysts who, with their lack of genuine personality, cannot deliver.  Coming up with catchphrases and fake laughs when there are as many as 15 games to cover each night seems like high school radio or public access television.  ESPN may be the worldwide leader when it comes to all sports but right now it’s lagging behind in the United States when it comes to golf and baseball.


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