The CostasNOW Big Media Sports Dept. Retrenchment of 2008

I don’t know about you, but I felt a little underwhelmed by last night’s proceedings. It was three parts obviousness, one part tantalizing springboard, one part bullies being bullies, and once all those ingredients were gathered, nobody put anything together.

Each segment was split into a pre-recorded introduction and a live panel moderated by Bob Costas.

Here we go, out of order…

1: Searching For Diamonds in the Sports Radio Compost Pile

Panel: Mike Chris Russo (Mike and The Mad Dog), Michael Strahan (New York Giants), and Mitch Albom (Detroit Free Press)

This segment didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know. Yes, radio guys have to have polar opinions to bolster ratings. Yes, there are some hosts who have gone to the “morning zoo” well too often. And yes, Mark Madden is an embarrassment to his profession, to the city of Pittsburgh, and to Hawai’ian shirts. What I took from this segment wasn’t about talk radio, though. When Michael Strahan retires from football, he’s going to have every sports network banging on his door. He’s a natural on television. They could have spent another ten minutes on this, but there wasn’t much ground to cover in the first place.

4: Pitchers Have Blogs, Utility Infielders Have Entourages

Panel: Selena Roberts (SI), John McEnroe (tennis legend and analyst), Tiki Barber (ex-NY Giant, NBC)

This panel had some interesting moments. Roberts gave the impression that money changed the relationship between jocks and journalists. She made her point by describing the hoops she had to jump through to get ten minutes with LeBron James. Meanwhile, Barber and McEnroe talked about the increasing fear athletes have of excessive scrutiny, out-of-context sound bites, and the occasional surprise hatchet job. They probably could have used another 15 minutes or so to get a little deeper.

3: The 900 lb. Gorilla Between New York and Hartford

Panel: Mike Tirico (ESPN), Dan Patrick (Sports Illustrated, syndicated radio), and Joe Buck (Fox)

This was the most useless part of the program. ESPN got real big, real fast. It’s all about the money. Fox has a tendency to go all A.D.D. with the crowd shots in baseball games. Celebrities in the Monday Night Football booth are there for the non-fans, because the diehards will watch no matter what. The panel spent a great deal of time nodding their heads in agreement, but there was no depth to the segment at all.

They started the pre-recorded portion with the original introduction to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Ironically, most of the sports depicted in that intro aren’t seen on television anymore, unless it’s an Olympic year or that sport’s NCAA championship event. Nobody picked up on that, though.

The sports television world is converging on what I call the ESPN Triumvirate: Football, Baseball, and Basketball. Everything else gets pushed aside, allowed to bubble to the top when ratings warrant, then tossed back to make room for the next big fad. And it’s not just ESPN. The national broadcast networks, Sports Illustrated, and The Sporting News are all falling in line with Bristol, or more accurately, the principles underlying Bristol’s decisions.

They easily could have spun this segment off into another 90 minute show. They barely scratched the surface last night.

5: The Whitest Profession U Know

Panel: Michael Wilbon (Washington Post, ESPN), Cris Carter (ex-Minnesota Viking, ESPN), Jason Whitlock (Kansas City Star, foxsports.com)

Costas announced that this would be given a 90 minute show all to itself, and if this panel is involved, I’ll make damn sure to watch. All three panelists used what little time they had to make pointed, insightful comments on how the absence of color in the press box and the editor’s desk tilts how sports are covered.

2: Old Media Matter Meets New Media Antimatter

Panel: Will Leitch (deadspin.com), Buzz Bissinger (author, Friday Night Lights), Braylon Edwards (Cleveland Browns)

(Full disclosure: I’m a Deadspin commenter, and I’ve met Will in person.)

This should have been the last segment of the night, because it would have punctuated the whole show perfectly. This panel proved that Traditional Media Still Doesn’t Get It. Perhaps traditional media doesn’t want to get it.

Bissinger, frankly, made a complete ass of himself. The split second he got a turn to speak, he pulled out a folder containing a hard copy of one of Big Daddy Drew’s “Balls Deep” columns from Deadspin, and proceeded to use it as a sledgehammer. He used his time, and most of Will’s, spewing obscenity-laden generalizations about bloggers that could all be boiled down to this fallacy:

I am a Journalist, with a capital ‘J’. Therefore, the opinions I get paid for and have published are the only ones that are relevant. If you are a blogger, it doesn’t matter if your opinion is right, because you’re not a Journalist.

Bissinger managed to be even more condescending than that, saying that Deadspin was contributing to the dumbing down of society. I guess he’s fallen victim to it himself, since he never saw the irony of cussing like a sailor to decry BDD’s profane humor.

Edwards held his own under tough circumstances. His observation about the consequences of cameraphones and MySpace cut to the heart of the matter better than any of Buzz’s tirades. Mostly, though, he was just trying to stay out of Bissinger’s way.

Put simply, this was an ambush. Costas, as an employee of Time Warner and NBC, in a forum provided by HBO (a unit of Time Warner), stopped being a moderator and became a fourth panelist, mostly serving up hanging curves for Bissinger. He even trotted out the tired, old “writer/commenter” fallacy, and tried to turn it on Will, as if to suggest that he should censor his readers.

The Point That Zoomed Over Everybody’s Head (I’ll Resist the “Costas is Short” Joke)

The common thread that tied the entire evening together was really the relationship between sports media and the regular folk who read/watch/listen to it. Sports radio is in a vicious cycle of hostility that will eventually spin out of control. They still have the ability to screen their callers, though, just as newspaper editors can select the letters they publish.

Everywhere else you look, however, you see players, fans, even entire leagues making end runs around Old Media. Curt Schilling launched 38pitches.com. The NHL was the first sports league to partner with YouTube, and is using the web to reach fans without leaving the fate of the game to A.C. Nielsen. Fans of under-the-American-radar sports like cricket, lacrosse, and rugby can get their fix without a national TV contract or a season preview in SI.

Most importantly, if a fan wants their voice to be heard, they don’t have to rely on the whims of the gatekeepers who guard the radio and the newspaper. If we have something to say, we will say it. We have our own publishing platforms now. If we don’t want to start blogs of our own, we can become regular commenters on somebody else’s blog.

Do you think Bob Costas was thinking about that as Will Leitch tried to reason with a Pulitzer Prize-winning loon? I don’t know. I expected Costas to make some sort of comment about how bloggers would react. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes about who Gets It, and who doesn’t.

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