On Monday, ESPN completed their journey toward becoming the network with the worst baseball coverage. While the quality had been deteriorating for a long time, it finally went over the edge when the powers that be cancelled ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast and replaced it with ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast.
Now the name change might not seem like something getting worked up about if you weren’t a regular listener, but I assure you the entire nature of the program was altered into something perfectly ESPN, which means it is perfectly terrible.
Baseball Today had been “on the air” for the last five years, but existed with its current roster for the last two and a half. The show was hosted by ESPN Fantasy Baseball writer Eric Karabell and co-hosted by ESPN Stats and Info researcher Mark Simon (Monday and Friday) and ESPN senior baseball/prospect analyst Keith Law (Tuesday-Thursday).
The show featured smart, analytical discussions about baseball that covered the entire league (read: not just the Yankees and Red Sox) and embraced sabermetrics and statistical analysis in addition to Law’s scouting chops. It was an excellent program for baseball fans of all stripes because it blended all kinds of baseball discussion ranging from The Ridiculous Question of the Day to analysis of market inefficiencies.
It also helped that the personalities meshed well together and were all genuine fans of the sport. They didn’t grow up as journalists, they grew up loving the sport.
Naturally, ESPN ruined it. My general complaint with ESPN’s sports coverage is that they spend too much energy focusing on uncovering “scoops” through “sources” so that they can bring you sports news first. When it comes time for analysis, they product is pretty awful. For the most part, the people they pay to comment on sports either speak only in clichés or know nothing about the thing about which they are paid to speak.
Does this sound familiar? “Player X just knows how to win. He’s one of the best players in the game, and I tell you what, in (insert league), that’s a really valuable thing.”
That’s pretty much every analyst on ESPN. There are occasional exceptions, but almost all of their coverage is reporting, speculation, and this type of analysis. And it’s just not interesting.
And this is generally what the Baseball Tonight podcast is. Buster Olney is now the host and he has his fellow BBTN colleagues on like Jayson Stark, Tim Kurkjian, and John Kruk. Don’t get me wrong, there is a big difference in buffoonery across that spectrum, but the entire show has become a “scoops” based show. It’s basically just a new forum for Olney to say, “I talked with someone at Yankees camp today and they told me this,” or “A source tells me…”
It’s not analysis, it’s just Olney reporting on stuff he hears. And then he asks people what they think about something and you get the same tired clichés you hear on BBTN.
So the podcast went from interesting analysis like Law breaking down a pitcher’s mechanical problems or Simon providing a very interesting observation about how a player performs against a certain type of pitch in a certain location to more driveling nonsense about contracts and whether or not A-Rod is a distraction.
While my distaste for this type of content is likely clear by now, I think it is important to ask a follow up question. Why did ESPN make this change when they had so much content like this already? Olney has a blog. They have the TV version of BBTN, there are countless other ESPN reporters doing TV spots with the same type of coverage. The Baseball Today podcast was the one place for the baseball fan who actually cared about smart, savvy baseball analysis and they got rid of it.
Mind you, they didn’t just add a new podcast for Olney, they cancelled the old one too. Someone at ESPN decided that it would be a better move for the network to cancel Baseball Today and replace it. I don’t get it.
Why is everyone so obsessed with sports and entertainment “scoops?” Is it so important to know all of this inside information and speculation? What do we gain from Olney having an entire podcast in addition to his writing and TV work to tell us random things people in front offices tell him?
We’d be so much better off hearing from smart people like Karabell, Law, and Simon who talk about interesting aspects of the game.
So I’m upset about this, you can tell. I wanted to write about it to criticize ESPN for being the worst network on Earth, but I also wanted to do it to let the Baseball Today cast know they put on a good show and should still be on the air. We, your listeners, will miss you.
But additionally, I have to share my thoughts about why ESPN made this move. I know they favor scoops and such over analysis, they have for a long time. But I also kind of think this was a subtle statement and punishment from the ESPN bigwigs.
A punishment for what you ask? I think this is a backlash against the Baseball Today crew for going too far into sabermetrics and supporting Trout over Cabrera in the MVP race in 2012. That may seem silly to you, given that a billion network couldn’t possibly care about something so small, but I think they did.
I think they saw their fan base get really upset at people who didn’t buy into the Triple Crown as a narrative in support of Cabrera. ESPN is a hype machine and their baseball podcast was going against the hype. They were a voice for the rational and analytical rather than the good story. I don’t think ESPN liked that at all. I think ESPN thought these guys weren’t company men because they were outside of the ESPN way of thinking, which is to develop inside access and get us scoops, and after that, follow the story we’re selling.
Now I don’t think it was so nefarious in the sense that the people who made this decision actually calculated this all out, but I think it subtlety informed their opinion of the Baseball Today podcast. This was a group of men talking about sports in a way that was very un-ESPN.
And they had to be stopped.
So they were. And Baseball Today is dead. The Bias Cat has been slaughtered for the final time and ESPN has completed its fall.
I listened to the new podcast for a week and probably won’t go back. I might try it out once games start to see if it changes at all, but it’s really mindless news headlines read aloud by ESPN’s top reporter.
And that’s the thing. Olney isn’t a bad reporter at all, it’s that a reporter shouldn’t be hosting a baseball podcast. Those of us who listen to this type of thing do it for commentary, not for news. We want to be entertained during boring points in our day (I listen on the ride home from work and while I’m at the gym). News comes in other fashion and the podcast plays on our iPods hours after its recorded, so we’ve already heard most of what Olney is reporting on through other means.
Maybe, I’m overreacting. Well, I know I am given that this is 1,300 words about a podcast, but I think the point holds up.
ESPN ruined a good thing for no reason. They could have kept the old one and launched the new one. They’re still paying all of the previous contributors to work on other things, so it’s not like this was a cost cutting move. This was a programming choice and a bad one.
Maybe this says more about how I’ve changed than it does about how they’ve changed, but I don’t think it does. Five or six years ago, almost all of my (non-live game) sports content came from ESPN. After the Baseball Today podcast died last week, exactly zero will.
Other than live games that can’t be watched anywhere else, I will not consume any ESPN content or products.
This was the network that changed everything thirty years ago, now it is utterly unwatchable.