Keith Olbermann was put on earth to be appreciated by people like me. As a lifelong sports fan who is also engaged in culture and politics, I exist on Olbermann’s wavelength, preferring a smart, if occasionally smartass, take on the day’s news instead of the dumbed-down spoon-fed approach found pretty much everywhere else.
During his heyday in the 1990s, Olbermann (along with Dan Patrick) was the face of SportsCenter. Actually, not really the face—thank God he dropped that mustache—but the voice of the program and, by extension, of the network. It’s easy to forget, but at one point ESPN was endearing—not the colossus we know now. Olbermann had a lot to do with that.
Coming to prominence at a time when David Letterman’s irony-fueled late-night show was comedy’s gold standard, Olbermann subverted the idea of the staid sportscaster whose only mission was to bring you the scores. Sports were no longer a thing out there while the rest of us were just over here quietly observing; Olbermann suggested we should interact with (and talk back to) the sports we loved. (He became known for running gags on SportsCenter, like when he’d show a good defensive play in baseball and say, “If you’re scoring at home…or even if you’re alone.”) Sports were entertainment, and their fans were intelligent enough to see through the old clichés.
That’s not the ESPN to which Olbermann returned last week. Then again, he’s not the same Olbermann either. Olbermann, his weeknight show, is still finding itself, but at this point, it’s a sometimes tedious, occasionally terrific mixture of old-school SportsCenter and Olbermann’s former MSNBC program Countdown. There have already been plenty of memorable moments, but rather than being a fresh twist on Olbermann’s appeal, Olbermann feels like a greatest-hits album—or perhaps more accurately, one of those late-career CDs when an aging band rerecords all its old hits. Still fun, kind of familiar, but also sort of off: That’s what Olbermann (and, by extension, Olbermann) has been thus far.
Sports on Earth’s Will Leitch suggests part of the problem is that Olbermann, an inveterate troublemaker, will have a tough time working for the Worldwide Leader: He’s better hurling grenades as an insurgent than cuddling up with the establishment. But for me, watching Olbermann is to be reminded that, essentially, this is just another version of what cable sports have become in the past 20 years. Olbermann is a smarter, funnier variation, but its sarcastic, impassioned host, once a trailblazer, is now lagging behind a model he helped create. Sadly, however, the model didn’t get better after he left SportsCenter in 1997. His descendants learned all the wrong lessons from him. And in the process, they became inexplicably successful—and, worse yet, ubiquitous.
There were sports-media personalities before Olbermann. Howard Cosell was such a popular, polarizing figure that he became an institution. (And never forget that Jimmy the Greek was actually a thing.) But Olbermann brought an above-it-all air that was new. Unlike his predecessors, he looked like he was supposed to be on television but acted as if he had mixed feelings about this whole broadcasting thing. (This, of course, was disingenuous: His smart-alecky persona had already been well-honed as an L.A. sports anchor in the 1980s; the YouTube proof here.) When he and Patrick became SportsCenter hosts, they told jokes and amused themselves—the implication being that if you were hip enough, you’d laugh too.
This was part of ESPN’s branding strategy. Inspired by Olbermann’s standard send-off to commercial break, the network started doing its “This Is SportsCenter” ad campaign, which cast athletes opposite ESPN personalities, often in faux-realistic, deadpan comedic bits. (A personal favorite is the one in which Olbermann operates on then QB Jim Harbaugh.) Beyond just being funny, the spots wanted you to understand there wasn’t much difference between our sports heroes and the rest of us—oh, and that the ESPN crew hung out with these guys all the time. Being knowledgeable about the sports they covered was important, but for the love of God, ESPN’s on-air talents needed to make sure they entertained first and foremost.
Olbermann’s successors took it from there—unfortunately. Descendants such as Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott turned SportsCenter into an open-mike-night atmosphere, and by the early 2000s, shows like Pardon the Interruption started popping up. These programs consisted of different columnists pummeling us with their hair-trigger takes on the latest sports gossip and minutiae. (Remember in the 1980s, when it was just the relatively courtly Sports Reporters?) Flip on ESPN’s phalanx of channels now and you’ll find Mike and Mike in the Morning, Around the Horn, First Take, SportsNation or Highly Questionable.
Today, the ESPN mentality seems to be: Two people talking about sports is okay, but audiences will feel better if they hear from seven people blathering at once. Even worse, the virus has spread throughout the television universe. Look no further than the quick devolution of MLB Network, which launched in 2009 with what appeared to be a commitment to reasonable on-air personalities. Four years later, the network’s flagship show, MLB Tonight, tends to be a rotating cast of former ballplayers whose core assets seem to be (1) their on-field experience and (2) how much they can yuk it up. Every network still possesses its small crop of measured, sober experts—MLB Network has Peter Gammons, ESPN has Bob Ley. But they’re outnumbered by guys (it’s always guys) who are abundant in enthusiasm and willingness to go for the quick-jab quip. (Even more frightening is that FOX Sports 1, a new potential cable challenger to ESPN’s reign, dubbed its ethos “jockularity,” aspiring to be funnier and more irreverent than the Worldwide Leader. Yes, ESPN’s problem all these years is how stuffy it’s been.)