Twenty Of Plenty ESPN's ballyhooed birthday underscores how much simpler--and duller--life once was for fans

September 05, 1999

ESPN turns 20 on Sept. 7 and is marking the occasion as ESPN
does best: with a celebrity-intensive celebration of itself.
"One more year and you can drink," Billy Crystal tells the
network in a new commercial for the channel, and there's a
terrifying thought. If the underage ESPN is a winking one-liner
machine, broadcasting at a louder decibel level than its cable
brethren, in a language--boo-yah!--already incoherent, then how
will it behave come 2000, when it gets a few birthday shots down
its neck? One can only pray that the Rapture arrives before we
find out, delivering us from the spectacle of Rich Eisen on
Rumple Minze.

A future so grim as to include a Stoli-fueled Stuart Scott
hardly bears thinking about. It's healthier to contemplate
happier times--say, the last two decades of televised sports,
the blessed past and present of ESPN. Whatever unspeakable
specter awaits us (Karl Ravech, Cuervo-ravaged) is better left
unpondered.

Watching sports was, to be sure, a simple pleasure in 1979, when
there were but three networks that anyone bothered to watch and
a handful of sportscasters, each of whom wore a garish uniform
in the manner of highway construction crews. Canary-yellow
blazers, for instance, were the compulsory apparel at ABC, where
the Monday Night Football booth resembled a meeting of Century
21 Realtors.

Network logos were not yet permanently tattooed to the corners
of TV screens for the benefit of those who can't memorize what
channels 2, 4 and 7 represent. We stupefied viewers had no
choice but to search for that signature network sport coat. Only
then could we stop flipping--for many of us, manual flipping, no
less--and alight. It was all very primitive: We were chickens
pecking at a buzzer in some bizarre lab experiment, and we liked
it that way. Or we thought we did. What did we know?

Then everything changed in sports TV. Everything but the viewer,
that is. One need only see a random sampling of the manifold
products now advertised by SportsCenter anchor Dan
Patrick--Rolaids, Coors, Head & Shoulders, SportsCenter
itself--to realize who the ESPN watcher is presumed to be: He's
an acidic, beer-goggled, dandruff-spangled sports wonk. He is,
in other words, you. Or, anyway, me. The point is, the viewer is
still a sedentary bystander, working toward a bypass.

But everything else about sports television is now
unrecognizable. ESPN was born in the middle of arguably
America's most auspicious sports year: roughly equidistant
between the 1979 NCAA basketball final of Bird and Magic and the
'80 U.S. Olympic hockey victory that united America like no
other sporting event. The cable network arrived not merely to
sate our appetite for sports but also to create a much more
ravenous one that requires infinitely greater and more immediate
televisual coverage than what could be jammed into the three
minutes following the local weather. So Larry Bird hatched Larry
Beil--and a thousand other purveyors of highlight and sound bite
who today stand sentry over the sports world 24/7.

Sports television has become a redundancy. NBC's quaint and
solitary baseball Game of the Week has given way, 20 years
later, to daily telecasts of more games (five on the day of this
writing), involving more teams (the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) on
more stations (Fox) than are strictly necessary. Those games are
regurgitated for us on 10 daily SportsCenter shows. I often
watch them back-to-back-to-back, powerless to stop. The dealer
has us hooked, and we now need our fix, and for that we can
thank ESPN.

The U.S. is sports-crazed, quite possibly in a clinical way. I
have friends who carry pagers in their pockets: When the West
Coast scores come in, they feel a pleasing vibration in their
pants. I have other friends who feel the very same sensation,
and they don't carry pagers.

Timothy Leary once told America to turn on, tune in, drop out.
It took a while, but we've finally done just that.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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