Once upon a time there was a place in America for chicken, and it was called Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was, at least in my northeastern United States neck of the woods, to my solidly middle class family, the place for chicken. And when I say chicken I mean the only kind of chicken that was proper and acceptable to consume in the 70’s and 80’s: fried chicken.
It was owned by a legendary figure known as Colonel Sanders, a kindly civil war era looking gentleman in a white suit with a black string tie.
He was goodness incarnate, and while Santa only brought presents, Colonel Sanders brought chicken. Delicious crispy chicken in buckets, no less. Anything worth having should come in a bucket. And in styrofoam containers: mashed potatoes. Packed so tight that you could flip it over and it would make the kind of tower you’d only find on the highest-end professional sandcastles. And they had buttery biscuits. And gravy: dark, rich gravy. And what was, I’m sure, good coleslaw, but I never came near that stuff. Coleslaw is and always has been something your immigrant Polish grandparents made to try to trick you into ingesting cabbage. No way, tequila.
So in the late eighties, it was with a chuckle that my friends and I noticed a tiny chain known as ‘Boston Chicken’ trying to gain a foothold in the Boston-area market. How cute, we thought. How optimistic, trying to dethrone a colossus in the world of chicken. What pluck.
But then, eventually, and probably accidentally, I ate there. Maybe it was 1990 or so when the chain was really starting to explode, and I was shocked to find that the rotisserie-style chicken they offered wasn’t just comparable to the embucketed Colonel’s fare, it was much better. They served meals on a partitioned plastic plate. One big area and two smaller areas, for “sides” like garlic dill potato wedges and cinnamon apples and fresh steamed vegetables. I found that I didn’t miss the mouthfeel of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s batter gristle as it mixed with a drumstick tendon and my saliva to form a congealed goo. You wince, but for a long time, that goo was America. That goo built the Panama canal and won two world wars. That goo was the mortar that held America together and made it all make sense. Hell, it still does for the WalMart set. But that was all before I had rotisserie chicken. In fact, once I tried Kentucky Fried Chicken again, it was disappointing.
In 1991, I heard that Kentucky Fried Chicken was forced to change it’s name to KFC because the meat it was using didn’t have a high enough percentage of bona-fide edible chicken and was mostly a compression of the ground up parts of a bird people used to throw in a dumpster. This rumor proved to be wildly untrue, (KFC was trying to move away from the word ‘fried,’ in actuality) but there was no Internet and no snopes and you believed what you heard because it must be true and the damage was done, and the message was sent. No entrenched icon is unassailable. No monolith can stand forever. No company with an insane market share is safe from revolution. Boston Market, as it became known, ate a giant chunk of the chicken share, and if I’ve eaten at a KFC since, it wasn’t intentional and I wasn’t sober.
I bring this up in relation to ESPN, which is the “worldwide leader in sports” but more or less the only name in American sports. Back in its early days, ESPN was a scrapper, fighting for relevance. It operated like a shitty little brother trying to copy his older brother’s slapshot. It’s not that hard, they said. We can do it, too. It nipped at the heels of the brick and mortar sports edifices of the national broadcasting companies at every turn, and you could tell that it meant more to the upstarts at ESPN, because all they did was sports.
They didn’t have to worry about the national news. They didn’t have to cover presidential elections or natural disasters. They only cared about sports, and for a certain percentage of the population, that was refreshing.
And then there was the heydey of Sportscenter, which was, in its day, as important to people as The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight feels right now. It was nimble and biting and sharp and would woo you with catchphrases and highlights and impossibly witty personalities who were actually as quick as they appeared. And it was fun. And edgy. And awesome. ESPN 2 launched and it was great, because there was so much sports! And somebody had to cover it. Who better than ESPN?
Then, something changed. I can’t really put my finger on when, exactly, that happened. But ESPN eventually became synonymous with sports and they became the biggest bully on the block. Not only did they run with the big boys in sports, they all but eliminated them. For the last 30 years or so, ESPN has been the place for anything and everything in American sports. And somewhere along the way, without that scrappers mentality, the comedy started to regress to the mean. The commentary became less insightful, more corporate and more stale. Safer and less interesting. They began to man their poopdeck with an increasing number of athletes, who would give viewers the insider’s viewpoint, but often were too unpolished or obtuse to offer anything comparable to the golden days. Jocks took over where nerds had built the ship of state and the quality of the programming took a serious hit. And worst of all, ESPN started to treat sports like a job instead of a passion. And some of what they did was just kind of shitty and obnoxious.
And I, along with lots of other sports fans, thought “these just aren’t my people.” Somewhere along the line, ESPN started to suck.
Just over a week and a half ago we found out that Keith Olbermann, one of the old guard, who had migrated away but returned home, would not have his contract renewed.
The sticking point, apparently, was that he was asked to remove “commentary” from his show. Asking Olbermann to remove commentary is like asking a dalmatian to remove its spots. Olbermann, like him or not — and there are many on both sides of that — is commentary.
On Friday, Colin Cowherd announced that he’s out as well, purportedly after closing in on a lucrative deal from Fox Sports.
This came on the heels of an ESPN decision in May to fire Bill Simmons, who is yet another of the most recognizable sports journalist in the country. He found out via Twitter, as close to a public humiliation as one can have in the Internet era, and just like that, his huge platform was taken away from him. ESPN giveth and ESPN taketh away.
For me, it’s the Bill Simmons thing that hurts the most. I don’t really know Cowherd and while I usually tend to agree with much of what Olbermann says, his delivery method can often straddle the line between preachy and lecture-y. That’s a tough line to cavort with when you’re in a sporting frame of mind. But Simmons, well, to me he’s the real deal. I think he deserves every penny he’s ever made and he’s worth more. I think he’s one of those amazing writers who can capture a feeling and frame it in a moment and accurately convey that to a wide audience. When I read his articles, he always nails the feelings I felt while watching a certain sporting event, and does it in a way that’s human and relate-able.
But more than than, it’s tough for me to see him walk away from Grantland. Everything I read about his management style and knack for recruiting and managing writers is nothing short of awesome. He sounds like the perfect balance between managerial and supportive. Most of the writers you’ll read in this day and age didn’t have anyone holding their hand along the way. They didn’t have an apprentice program where a master in their field worked to help them improve and yet respected the individuality of their voices. What a gift. And Grantland was (is?) good. Quality writing that tackles interesting subjects. Good young voices. A position. It was Simmons’ baby and in May he had to walk away from it. That sucks out loud.
So what’s going on? I could tell you that Simmons and Olbermann were canned for bashing ESPN’s sacred calf, the NFL. But that would only be part of the answer. Yes, they both did. And yes, ESPN didn’t come down hard enough for the NFL’s liking so the NFL flexed its muscles a different way. ESPN purchased the rights to air Monday Night Football, the NFL’s flagship weekly programming for 15 billion dollars in 2011, but they don’t set the schedule. So the NFL came out this season with arguably the most lackluster Monday Night Football schedule ever. Message received. Simmons and Olbermann are out.
But that’s actually fortuitous timing for ESPN head John Skipper, who has been tasked with cutting 100 million dollars from the ESPN budget next year and 250 million for 2017.
The reason is cord cutting. Plain and simple. The folks at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, CT have been basically printing their own money for years due to the forced bundling of packages on cable systems. Up until recently, you had to have ESPN as part of your package. And their costs were astronomical compared to the rest of the cable industry. Here are the most expensive sports channels (according to research from SNL Kagan).
1. ESPN $6.61 x 94.5 million homes = $7.5 billion
2. NFL Network $1.31 x 73.6 million homes = $1.16 billion
3. FS1 .99 x 91.2 million homes = $1.08 billion
4. ESPN2 .83 x 94.5 million homes = $941.2 million
5. SEC Network .66 x 69.1 million homes = $547.3 million
6. Golf Channel .35 x 79.4 million homes = $332.2 million
7. NBC Sports Network .30 x 83.1 million homes = $299 million
8. Big Ten Network .39 x 62 million homes = $290.2 million
9. MLB Network .26 x 71.3 million homes = $222.5 million
10. FS2 .28 x 64 million homes = $215 million
11. NBA TV .29 x 57.2 million homes = $199 million
12. ESPNU .22 x 74.9 million homes = $198 million
13. CBS Sports Network .26 x 61 million homes = $190.3 million
14. NHL Network .32 x 37.4 million homes = $143.6 million
15. Pac 12 Network .39 x 12.3 million homes = $57.6 million
And here’s a list of all the most expensive channels on cable:
1. ESPN $6.61
2. TNT $1.65
3. Disney Channel $1.34
4. NFL Network $1.31
5. Fox News $1.12
6. USA Network $1.00
7. FS1 $0.99
8. TBS $0.85
9. ESPN2 $0.83
10. Nickelodeon $0.73
Whoa. Look at those numbers. ESPN is five bucks more than any other channel, and subscribers who wanted cable HAD TO PAY FOR IT.
But now there are finally, blissfully, (thank you, the onward march of technology), ways around being forced to pay for shit you don’t want, and ESPN, the biggest land baron of the forced packaging era, is taking a hit. Check out this graph from the WSJ.
ESPN sees the writing on the wall. The pace of cord-cutting is increasing, and the days of unbridled expansion and complete unfettered control of the sports industry by ESPN are coming to an end. And that’s a good thing, because there should be alternate voices in the world of sports. There should be different viewpoints. With the financial hit that ESPN takes because of people actually choosing not to have almost seven bucks stolen from them every month, ESPN will have to adjust. It will have to be more nimble and its competitors will begin to take pieces of the market share that had been unthinkable in years past. You know what you hear a lot of? “Fuck ESPN” or “ESPN SUCKS.” You don’t hear “I love ESPN!” Ever. It’s because we’re burnt on it. Only 2 percent of Americans haven’t heard of ESPN. That’s a shame because if you look past most of the bloviating self-important windbags, or moron athletes who can’t form a complete sentence, there are some talented people there, and they deserve an audience.
For now, all we can do it sit back and watch as the giant machine of ESPN is slowly dismantled, piece by excruciating piece, as it tries to afford its monstrous six billion dollar payout in annual sports deals while cord cutters steer away monthly revenue faster than you can cook a rotisserie chicken.