The trouble with being the most prominent brand in sports is the big fat target on ESPN’s back.
That’s why a quiver’s worth of arrows has come sailing in the Disney juggernaut’s direction this past week as some of its most established on-air veterans have opted to go elsewhere like Mike Tirico, to NBC, and Skip Bayless, most likely to Fox Sports. Their departures extend an ESPN-exodus narrative that has been gathering steam since Bill Simmons (HBO), Colin Cowherd (Fox Sports), Jason Whitlock (Fox Sports) and Keith Olbermann (who knows) also decamped over the past 12 months.
Their departures feed into a more macro narrative about ESPN, which finds itself in a newly precarious state as its subscriber numbers drop and its parent company feels the pain from the decline of the most valuable asset in Bob Iger’s portfolio.
Naturally, ESPN isn’t sitting idly by as the brain-drain conventional wisdom takes hold, going so far as to dispatch a corporate blog post from president John Skipper last week that attempted to put the exit in the broader context of a roster that has remained largely unchanged. That the network has retained most of its talent just isn’t as sexy a story as the notion that onetime loyalists are fleeing a crumbling empire.
But perhaps the truest assessment of ESPN’s on-air personalities is neither a deep bench or rats fleeing a sinking ship. Rather, the focus should be more qualitative than quantitative.
Is it in the realm of possibility that ESPN hasn’t been even more aggressive about keeping its people from getting other jobs is that the talent that once defined this network’s identity just isn’t what it used to be. The days when ESPN alums like Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen seemed to enjoy a popularity that rivaled the athletes they covered feel long gone, replaced by an increasingly generic bunch of empty suits who don’t make as deep an impression, and are therefore dispensable.
Is Tirico a big loss for ESPN, or big gain for ESPN? Considering he may be the most flavorless talent in any pro-sports broadcast booth, maybe neither. As for Bayless, he seems to have been phoning it in for a while now, deliberately poking at on-air partner Stephen A. Smith to simply play the role of provocateur rather than opining out of any real sense of conviction.
Whether a “Sportscenter” anchor or an NFL color commentator, the current generation of ESPN personalities are generally ersatz Xerox copies of the men and women who came before them, employing the same, now-tired low-key snark. Few among them haven’t faded into the woodwork.
The on-air exodus at ESPN should compel the network to do some long-overdue experimentation, bringing in voices and perspectives that might have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. ESPN surely recognizes this to some degree considering the way the midnight edition of “Sportscenter” has been rebuilt around the individual who seems to be the personality in which it has most faith to break out of the pack, Scott Van Pelt. But he’s really standard-issue ESPN. If this is the best the network has, perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Rather than recruiting from its own ranks, ESPN should be reaching out to find fresh blood that doesn’t seem like it came from the same assembly line that hasn’t been tweaked in decades. Find someone who doesn’t smirk quite so much. Maybe even lose the mandatory silk tie.
At a time when the digital era brings the whole format of its flagship franchise, “Sportscenter,” into question, the need for truly great talent is more important than ever.