…the way off the cliff.
If we lived in a righteous world, ESPN’s recent announcement that Joe Morgan would not continue on Sunday Night Baseball next year would serve as a watershed moment. Morgan, of course, has long been a lightening rod of criticism for his stubbornness, lack of intellectual curiosity and insistence on comparing all current players unfavorably to Dave Concepcion.
Now he’s gone. (At least until the MLB Network hires him to do games with Costas.) And almost every other former player currently analyzing sports on television should follow.
It’s easy to understand why networks hire ex-jocks to announce games, sit in studios and otherwise bloviate about their former professions. The players have high Q ratings, the theory goes, so they’ll attract viewers and listeners.
But we live in an increasingly sophisticated media landscape, and sports consumers are savvier than ever about the games they watch, thanks to fantasy sports, gambling, advanced statistics, and the abundance of readily available information on the Internet. The days of John Madden saying “Watch this hit right here…Boom!” should be going the way of Madden himself.
But they’re not.
Madden has been replaced by Matt Millen and Joe Theismann and Deion Sanders. Morgan will be replaced by John Kruk or Eric Byrnes. And our collective sports viewing experience will continue to suffer.
Will Carroll once told an anecdote about auditioning to be a fantasy sports analyst on TV. He asked the produced what credentials would be given to establish his expertise with the audience. The producer replied that none need be given because the mere fact that he was on television would mean he was an expert, in the feeble minds of the audience. And sadly, that producer is correct. The majority of sports fans are content to be spoon-fed the same drivel by announcers and analysts game after game, year after year.
We must demand more from our televised sports. If we’re going to sit through endless commercials, and endless promotional graphics on the screen during gameplay, we deserve to be treated like consumers, not idiots.
Rare is the jock who can offer up interesting, new information about what we’re watching. They’re out there, to be sure (Cris Collinsworth, e.g.), but they’re few and far between.
The real question is why this passe tradition of automatically hiring well-known players the second they retire continues. The theory goes that because they played the game, these retirees can offer insights that normal humans couldn’t possibly come up with on their own. But that inside scoop usually amounts to nuggets like these:
- Back when I played, we always knew that Player X was a real gamer.
- I know Coach Y personally, and he’ll never let his players quit on him. That’s not his style.
- Now, as you can see in our graphic, this pitcher throws a fastball, curveball and splitter.
- Look at this replay. What an amazing diving catch. What a pair of hands this guy’s got.
People become professional athletes because they’re naturally talented, and because they work hard at their chosen vocation. Those skills don’t translate to having solid overall knowledge about their sport, and more importantly, being able to communicate that knowledge with an audience.
Why aren’t legitimate analysts, like Joe Sheehan and Aaron Schatz, being paid to be color guys? They’re smart and innovative, and they search for new ways to understand these games we watch. Now, just because I’m a stathead doesn’t mean I think that an ESPN announcer should be talking about wins above replacement or fielding independent pitching. I don’t. I’m not saying that the evolutionary breed of announcer has to be wonky. Just smart and different from what we have now.
I don’t buy that more people watch a football game because Troy Aikman is broadcasting it. I think the opposite is true — more people would watch if their viewing experience was actually enhanced, not harmed, by the announcing team. And that happens amazingly rarely.
I’m a realist, so I know it’s all too likely that whoever fills Morgan’s shoes will make us pine for the days of Little Joe. But there has to be a network out there that’s willing to take a chance — ABC did it with Dennis Miller, they just took the wrong kind of chance. They opted for entertainment instead of ability and knowledge. I do believe there’s a market out there for well-presented, thought-out, in-game analysis. I just don’t know that there’s an executive smart enough to realize it.