Friday, August 11, 2006

ABC Sports, RIP

Forty-five years ago sports on television received its own brand at the American Broadcast Company when the ABC Sports division was born. After its four-plus decade long run as (often) the most prominent name in sports broadcasting, Mother Mouse-Ears has euthanized the ABC Sports brand. From now on, all sports on ABC will carry the ESPN name and will be called "ESPN on ABC".

For traditionalists, longtime sports junkies and TV Sports columnists, the rebranding is like the death of an old friend. ABC Sports' former president and driving force Roone Arledge created "ABC's Wide World of Sports" -- a weekend fixture only a decade or so ago. Arledge also created Monday Night Football, the most successful sports showcase in history. His legacy is coterminal with ABC Sports' legacy: the first network to use instant replay, advanced graphics and to bring investigative journalism to TV Sports.

And that's largely the problem. Without Arledge, who took over the ABC network in 1986, ABC Sports stagnated. It gave up on baseball during Arledge's tenure and never really obtained a hold on the American Pasttime again. ABC Sports is a driving force behind the perennially contentious and controversial Bowl Championship Series, which has been a flop for most of its existence. ABC Sports lost or gave up a signature event -- the Olympics -- after taking a huge loss on the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, only to watch CBS and NBC handle the Olympic coverage competently and profitably. The king may be dead now, but it had been dying for years.

ESPN has been the ultra-aggressive sports amoeba for the past two decades. Following its small start in 1979, the network has become a staple of sports fans worldwide. It has expanded relentlessly to the Pacific Rim, Latin America and throughout North America. It gobbled up Turner Classic Sports (now ESPN Classic), jumped into the fray for NFL football game coverage, aggressively pursued baseball and has literally created sports out of strange things people do (X games) or ordinary games people play (World Series of Poker). ESPN has challenged the older networks' sports commitment by purchasing the rights to broadcast all three major sports, both major college sports (football and basketball) and is seeking to capitalize on the increasing soccer following in the US with its recent deal with MLS. It has even challenged Sports Illustrated's hitherto unquestioned title as the ultimate sports magazine with ESPN The Magazine (although it tends to be more attitude and less substance than it should).

Today, ESPN carries the national Sunday Night Baseball game, with games on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday during the season and more than half the first-round playoffs; ESPN carries the most college football and basketball games of any network; and it now hosts NBA games up until the Finals. This fall, ESPN will air its greatest prize, Monday Night Football.

More importantly, ESPN's production work, sports direction, broadcasters and analysts are usually the best in the business (especially as a group, if not individually [two words: Lee Corso; two more words: Michael Irvin]). ESPN's NFL Countdown far surpasses any other NFL preview show; ESPN's college football gameday is usually very good; its college gamenight and NBA shows are routinely better than competitors on CBS (college sports programs) or TNT (NBA).

Disney is calling the change an "evolution". That's partially right. It's also a coronation. The king is dead, long live the king.

ABC Sports, 1961-2006, RIP.

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