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Dominoes? Paintball? ESPN jumps the shark

By GARY SHELTON
Published June 25, 2006


The scowl looked a lot like Bill Parcell's just before third and 1. The wheels were turning. Strategy was being contemplated.

The eyes looked a lot like Michael Jordan's in the fourth quarter. The ball was in his hands. The goal was straight ahead.

The jaw was set, like Joe Frazier's in the 10th round. He was out for blood. He was ready to rumble.

Which was when the television cameras drew closer, and the competitor took a deep breath. And then, in one of the clutch performances you will ever see on ESPN, he laid down a domino.

Repeat: a domino.

Grrrr.

What in the wide world of sports is ESPN thinking? Dominoes? What, did someone forget the Pick-Up Sticks?

Look, nothing against dominoes, except the looming steroid scandals, of course, but on ESPN? Personally, I like backgammon, and in my more fit days, I played a mean game of Clue, but that doesn't mean either should be televised. It was bad enough when ESPN began to fall in love with poker players, but compared with dominoes, Texas Hold 'Em is the decathlon.

Such is the new world of ESPN, now a company picnic network where games seem to be more important than sports and the doughy guy in sunglasses raising the pot is more important than an athlete raising a trophy.

Paintball championships. Poker tournaments. Rodeo. Game shows. Billiards. Kickboxing. Logrolling. Hot dog eating contests. Sports writers yelling at each other. If these are sports, they should hold the Olympics at Chuck E. Cheese's. The other day, I was in a restaurant, and bowling was on the TV. Not just any bowling, but trick bowling. Arena bowling, if you will.

Participants were bowling between their legs, over chairs, using billiard cues, whatever. It seemed like fun. On the other hand, I have vowed not to watch bowling until someone is rolling Mike Tyson's skull toward the pins.

For ESPN, the ultimate blush point, so far, was a show called Madden Nation, in which the network televised players playing a video football game against each other. The players dressed in jerseys and, between plays, talked smack to each other as if they had accomplished something other than directing flashing images. Never satisfied with a low point, ESPN plans another season. Of course it does.

Most of us understand that television networks are all about ratings and rights fees, which tend to turn trash sports into cash sports. But the reason we watch ESPN, the reason it has credibility, is for sports. Otherwise, the network might as well carry mediocre karaoke competitions. (Fortunately, American Idol thought of it first.) Here's the scary thing: The guy who thought of putting card games, board games and video games on television is probably thinking of something else right now. Backgammon. Frogger. Competitive Slip 'N Slide. The Price is Right starring general managers. The other day, the ESPN Web site had a feature on a sport called "chessboxing," in which participants competed in both, which sounds like a pilot for the fall lineup.

Here's an idea: How about sports writers with chainsaws, hosted by Ozzie Guillen.

The thing is, ESPN is unraveling before our eyes. Once, it was essential television for those who followed sports. Now, except for the highlights and the odd game, it's a collection of ideas for parlor games at your kid's next birthday party. It shows athletic competitions about as often as MTV shows music videos.

Aha, you are probably thinking:

This is why they couldn't find a slot for the NHL?

If you work for ESPN, of course, you are positively giddy about the network's divorce from the NHL. No one watched the recent NHL playoffs possibly because people are still sorting through their menus attempting to find OLN. According to the Los Angeles Times, the third game of the Stanley Cup final drew fewer viewers in L.A. than a rival network drew for an I Love Lucy rerun, and it wasn't even the episode where Lucy stomps the grapes.

Gee. How many people would have watched if scoring wasn't up, if it hadn't been a great final and if the NHL hadn't cured all of its problems with that yearlong lockout?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, it should be said, thinks OLN was a fine idea. Of course, he also thought the lockout, which drew almost as many viewers, was an inspiration. In Texas Hold 'Em terms, this was "the flop." Bettman is paid to know better.

At this point, Bettman needs to bend a knee and issue a plea. He needs to point to all of the various ESPN channels and beg for one of them, any one, to show his league's games. He needs to settle for any announcer, even Chris Berman. If it takes it, he should offer to let the players play Trivial Pursuit between periods. Parcheesi, maybe.

Frankly, the NHL needs ESPN. And despite the low ratings of the past year, ESPN could use the NHL.

Either that, or it needs to hire a couple of play-by-play announcers who know something about Jenga.

[Last modified June 25, 2006, 03:51:18]


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