August 10, 2007

ESPN Hits a New Low

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Congratulations Tiger Woods! Yes, Woods has won 12 majors, is a new father and could probably run Nike. But that is nothing compared to his most recent win in ESPN’s Who’s Now competition! Yeah! Every day for the past several weeks, ESPN’s Sportscenter has been running this inane competition and now that it is over, I feel like ESPN owes me my life back. I have not met a single person who either liked Who’s Now or thought it was a good idea. Yet, for some reason, ESPN executives were probably all congratulating themselves and high-fiving each other after coming up with the idea.
The purpose of Who’s Now was simple; ESPN tried to crown the most “now” athlete, a “combination of on-the-field performance and off-the-field success.” ESPN informed us of these criteria every show. The network picked 32 athletes who it felt embodied “now.” The athletes were then all seeded and put into one of four regions, named for either Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali or Billie Jean King. This would normally be fine, but throughout the first round, ESPN felt compelled to explain to the viewers why the regions were named after Jordan, Ruth, Ali and King. Seriously, how stupid did ESPN think their viewers were? “Oh, these four athletes were ‘now’ in their time! That’s why they are the names of the regions! I was wondering why the regions weren’t named after Todd Hollandsworth, Dino Radja, Andrew Cassels and Akili Smith!”
For every matchup, ESPN produced a little segment explaining why these athletes could be considered “now.” For example, it would point out David Ortiz’s endorsement deal with Vitamin Water, Amanda Beard’s posing in Playboy or Roger Federer’s actual athletic prowess. Then, anchor Stuart Scott would moderate a panel of three people who would discuss the match-up. The panelists consisted of 30 percent of the vote during the first round and 10 percent afterward. The panel was eclectic to say the least. Among the personalities who graced the panel were Mike Wilbon, Keyshawn Johnson, Kirk Herbstreit, Erin Andrews, Mike Greenberg, Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Jessica Biel. Some of the panelists, like Wilbon and Greenberg, actually are smart and looked like they thought about the matchups. Others did not fare so well. Sandler, who along with James and Biel was promoting the recent film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, looked like he was under sedation and acted like he would lose an academic competition to his character from Billy Madison. James, on the other hand, just liked talking about his favorite teams, and probably would have preferred the Mets’ Lastings Milledge to win the competition. As for Biel, I don’t know how big of a sports fan she is, but I guess her tour-de-force performance in the Freddy Prinze, Jr. baseball movie Summer Catch qualifies her as a sports expert.
Despite Scott’s attempts to make this feel like a legitimate competition, it really wasn’t. ESPN tried far too hard to make sure that all the sports were represented, leading to surfer Kelly Slater’s inclusion. Frankly, I would have included Apollo Creed or Crash Davis before Slater. In addition, some athletes seemed to be included only because ESPN covers them a lot. For example, Terrell Owens no longer is one of the top-3 wide receivers in the NFL and his off-the-field presence is defined the fact that he is self-absorbed, certifiably insane and has an ego bigger than Charles Foster Kane. But since ESPN welcomes Owens’s diva-like persona, he still made the list.
As the tournament proceeded, it became clear that it would not be very exciting. Scott tried to play up the matchups, even forseeing the first potential first-round loss for a No. 2 seed since Iowa State in the 2001 NCAA Tournament. The fact that Scott actually compared Who’s Now to a legitimate sport notwithstanding, not a single No. 2 seed went down in the first round. In fact, there was only one upset in the opening round – Tony Parker over Federer. I am not quite sure how Parker made the field in the first place; I can think of at least five point guards better than him, and he is only really famous because he is married to Eva Longoria. But alas, the people like their Desperate Housewives and Parker advanced to the second round, where he was promptly trounced by Shaquille O’Neal; I guess the public likes Kazaam better than Housewives. In fact, Shaq was responsible for the only other upset of the entire tournament, as he topped No. 1 seed Tom Brady in the quarterfinals of the Ruth region.
In the finals, Woods matched up against James, and ESPN tried to make it a big deal. They even interviewed an actual athlete, Matt Leinart, to see his reaction to losing to Woods in the first round. Unfortunately, that moment ranks just below Leinart’s possible relationship with Paris Hilton in the most embarrassing moments in his life. Ultimately, Woods beat James by a healthy margin, and was crowned as the ultimate “now” athlete. Great. Now what? Besides the fact that he now might score two free tickets to I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, somehow I doubt Tiger actually cares. Woods (and fans as well) puts much more stock in his play than in a gimmicky competition.
Frankly, I don’t know what the fallout from the competition will be. The only result of Who’s Now is that it seems to have alienated everyone from ESPN and Sportscenter. I know that whenever Who’s Now came on, I reacted angrily, which is not a good sign. I understand that it is the middle of the summer, but I would strongly prefer that ESPN stick to real sports coverage instead of making up programming like this. So ESPN should send Scott back to hosting Stump the Schwab and go back to doing what it does best, over-saturating us with NFL coverage.