There's all kinds of contrition and tidiness in ESPN's rehiring of Keith Olbermann on the day of the ESPYs. The contrition: Olbermann -- who will host an hour-long nightly sports-talk affair on ESPN2, the network that was launched with his appeal in mind nearly 20 years ago -- is, by his once and future bosses' reckoning, the kind of witty, transcendent talent ESPN never should have ditched in the first place. The network has cast its lot with the brain-dead, and for that it is sort of sorry. And the tidiness: Little crystallizes ESPN's present-day silliness -- its obsession with stars, superlatives and debate -- than the ESPYs, an endlessly-hyped spectacle of Bristol's own creation, one which happens to be far more useless than the spectacle of other awards shows, because sports (unlike movies or TV or music) already have objective evaluation metrics.
This contrast, we imagine, is something ESPN wanted sports media observers to notice. It was ESPN's way of signaling that it had its own horse to enter in a growing genre of sports television programming: the daily talk show for the thinking sports fan -- read: the show for the sports fan who is too smart to watch ESPN.
These shows are beginning to pop up all over the dial: NBC Sports Network airs "The Crossover" with ESPN exile Michelle Beadle and simulcasts "The Dan Patrick Show;" MLB Network airs "MLB Now" with ESPN defector Brian Kenny (who, upon Olbermann's announcement, tweeted: "great news for the thinking fan"); and Fox Sports 1, which will launch in August, plans to carry a number of these programs. It essentially said as much when it billed itself as "an alternative to the establishment" -- one "fans [were] ready for" in its inaugural press release in March. And it backed up that claim when it hired Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, the TSN "SportsCentre" anchors considered the closest thing to the golden-age Olbermann-Patrick "Big Show" pairing, and when it added The Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay, the smartest sports columnist at it today, to its daily Regis Philbin-hosted gabfest.
On the Olbermann conference call on Wednesday, ESPN honcho John Skipper more or less confirmed that the new show was a return of Fox's volley: "Clearly the timing ... is intended to put us in a competitive position."
But it seems that no one involved in the talk-shows-for-smart-sports-fans arms race has stopped to ask one pretty meaningful question: Why bother?
Sports media has more than enough punditry already. You find it on so many blogs and on Bleacher Report, now that the generation of writers who grew up aspiring to be Bill Simmons has come of age. You find it in newspapers, where the highest honor attainable -- the last promotion of them all -- is columnist, a position from which stray hacks have held forth on whatever controversy has them clutching their pearls at the moment.
Good bloggers and columnists, though, have the luxury of confining themselves to stating their opinions only when they've had time to consider them. Writing works that way -- a smart paragraph can take hours. But roundtable talk shows are different. They make instant pundits out of everyone. Have a "take" on Flacco. On LeBron. On advanced stats. On Johnny Football. On everything! And fast! It doesn't matter how smart the TV person is; TV makes everyone dumber.
And sports lack the connective tissue that sustains good cable-news shows. On cable, the host needs to walk viewers through the 1,200-word newspaper story about PRISM or the 2,500-word magazine story on Syria before he or she goes to an expert to talk about it. Sometimes the story unfolds dialectically, as the host asks an expert to explain. Only afterward do the all-purpose pundits appear.
But sports, unlike politics or economics or the Middle East, have very few stories with that kind of narrative heft AND room around them to have meaningful discussions. The year 2013 has given us Aaron Hernandez, Biogenesis and Jason Collins. On top of those there are the evergreen issues: head injuries, amateurism and public financing for stadiums. Are there really other sports stories that -- in the absence of new reporting -- would make for a good talk-show discussion longer than three minutes? By way of answering that rhetorical question, here's another: Have you ever tried listening to national sports-talk radio?
Why not invest in more news magazines, documentaries, interview shows and footage of old games and events? Why slap a daily talk show on the schedule?
If it's not the games themselves (or highlights, which are better accessed online, anyway), and if it's not especially informative, moving or funny (three descriptors far more likely to pertain to sportswriting than sports talk), why would anyone watch sports television? The problem isn't that sports talk lacks smart people -- it's that smart people have no need for sports talk.