If you're aware of Rob Parker's comments regarding Robert Griffin III that ultimately got him fired, you may have thought to yourself, "How did a guy like that get on ESPN in the first place?" Well, when you have a half-dozen 24-hour sister channels, a radio station, a magazine and a website, you have a lot of space to fill, and that requires voices. The more imperative question is this: what was ESPN putting on the air before that Rob Parker and his ilk were considered an improvement? If Rob Parker is a Homo sapien on the evolutionary scale of ESPN, just what the hell was the Homo habilis, or lord forbid, the Homo ergaster?
Let's step into the wayback machine and look at some of the ESPN programming that just didn't make it to the year 2013. Some of this stuff you've probably heard of before; others don't even have a Wikipedia page. But they all share the same trait of no longer being a part of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, for better or worse.
Mohr Sports (2002)
Early in the aughts, ESPN decided to give comedian Jay Mohr a late night talk show. Mohr can be funny, as anyone who's ever listened to the SModcast can attest. However, sports comedy shows tend not to last (See: Sports Show With Norm McDonald, Onion SportsDome), and this was no different. The jokes were hit-and-miss, while both Mohr's persona and the actual presentation of the show were trying too hard to be edgy. (Note the Mohr Sports logo, which looks like duct tape was plastered over Mohr's face.) Neither element made the show all that appealing, which is a necessity for a late-night show to survive. Mohr Sports hopped from ESPN to ESPN 2, airing at completely random times, before finally getting pulled after just 25 episodes. (Also, there's Slayer in the video! Metal!!!!)
There are three eras of ESPN 2. There was the "young, hip" era, when the channel first began in 1993; ESPN wanted to attract younger viewers, so they did things on "the deuce" that were considered different at the time. The on-screen graphics were in lowercase, there was a graffiti theme, the hosts dressed casually (like, really casually), every show name had a "2" in it somewhere, and for some reason most of the titles were surrounded by brackets. (Radical stuff!!!)
The second era of ESPN 2 was to ditch all that and become a vast repository of completely random outdoors competitions and racing events that ESPN didn't want to air on the main network. The third era is what we see now, where ESPN 2 is basically just a miniature version of ESPN, sans the relevant sports broadcasts. SportsNight was what ushered in the first era. Not to be confused with the super-wise-cracking Aaron Sorkin comedy show, which was titled "Sports Night," "SportsNight" was a three-hour news show that initially aired on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and was hosted by Keith Olbermann and Suzy Kolber.
If that sounds like too much of a somewhat decent thing, you weren't alone. Sports Illustrated described the young network and its wanna-be flagship program as "a bunch of middle-aged guys pretending to be young and a bunch of white guys pretending to be black." It lasted until 1995 before going off the air.
(By the way, if you make it to the end of the video, you'll come to a John Daly story that could easily still air in 2013. It's hard to believe we've been fretting over this guy's drinking problems since 1993.)
Talk2 was one of 37 seemingly-identical sports talk shows Jim Rome has hosted over the last twenty years. (Although to be fair, you wouldn't really know that it's Rome talking if you didn't hear the voice. The dude looks pretty unrecognizable without the goatee.) The show, which must have one of the dumbest names in the history of television, actually lasted for a nice chunk of time on the ESPN sister channel. But it doesn't matter. All that matters with Talk2 is that it featured one of the greatest unscripted, caught-on-camera altercations ever. Sit down and enjoy, perhaps for the millionth time, as Jim Everett lunges at the creator of the "Smackdown" for comparing him to women's tennis player Chris Everett.
2 Minute Drill (2000-2001)
Boy oh boy, I LOVED this show growing up. There have been a ton of attempts to make a sports game show that works, but just about all of them have been clunkers. This was the exception. The 2 Minute Drill had a very simple premise: competitors had to answer as many trivia questions in the span of 120 seconds as humanly possible. The dude with the most correct answers moved on to a final question, where he'd have to answer a very challenging question about his favorite athlete/team of choice.
Why did it work? Well for one thing, the show had the same executive producer as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, meaning the clock ticking, intense lighting and dramatic music that worked so well on Millionaire was pasted directly onto this show. You may call that derivative, but I say why mess with success? The second reason it worked is that it only asked the athletes involved on the show to read questions. The show wasn't oblivious to the fact that these guys weren't charisma gods, and didn't linger the camera on them for an unnecessary amount of time. (This was not the case for Stump The Schwab, which I'll touch on shortly.)
As far as game shows go, 2 Minute Drill was totally watchable, the sort of program that would come on late at night and that you'd probably stick with for the entirety of the half hour, if nothing else was on. That may read like weak praise, but when you think about it, it's actually pretty damn hard to make nerds answering trivia questions exciting.
Up Close (1982-2002)
Airing from 1982 to 2002, Up Close lasted for 20 years on ESPN. And if I had to guess, it would take ESPN executives less than 20 seconds to deny making a show like this ever again. Up Close epitomized the pre-blathering talking heads era of ESPN, when shows were allowed to have something other than edgy anthem rock; Up Close was just an interview show, and a pretty slow one. There weren't seven people on screen screaming at each other, and the camera wasn't zooming in on people's faces. It was just an interview show. Sometimes it was interesting, sometimes it wasn't. But it was respectable.
So how did the show end? Why, in a completely undignified, embarrassing train wreck! In one of the final tapings in the show's history, boxers Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman appeared in a joint interview to promote their upcoming fight. Questions were asked about the boxers, someone was called "gay," someone's mom was brought up, and... well, boom went the dynamite.
The NHL on ESPN (1992-2004)
For a dozen glorious years, the NHL had a visible presence on the ESPN family of networks. The theme music, the presentation, somehow it all seemed to work. Even now, when I hear glimpses of Gary Thorne doing an Orioles game, I think to myself, "Oh, that's the ESPN NHL dude!" before going, "Wait, why am I watching an Orioles game?" Of course, all good things must come to an end, and when ESPN decided not to renew their contract with the NHL, it more or less put a stop to the idea that the NHL was one of the Big Four leagues in the country, along with the NFL, NBA and MLB. After all, in 2007, the NHL All-Star Game -- then being shown on Versus, or what is now the NBC Sports Network -- was beaten in the ratings by a four-decade-old rerun of the Andy Griffith Show on TV Land. That doesn't happen to a major sports league, and it certainly wouldn't have happened had the NHL remained with ESPN.
Dream Job (2004-2005)
Riding the coattails of finding-the-next-big-thing reality shows like American Idol, ESPN launched Dream Job in 2004. The show held open auditions looking for the next host of SportsCenter, and the finalists -- most of whom were journalism or history majors just out of college -- were judged on air from a panelists table that included the likes of Tony Kornheiser (in the first season), Woody Paige and Stephen A. Smith (in subsequent seasons), and ESPN VP of talent Al Jaffe (in all three seasons). The show had a self-indulgent, navel-gazing quality, since it was essentially an ESPN show frowning at people, telling these young punks how tough it is in the real world and how lucky they were to be on ESPN at all.
If there was anything commendable about Dream Job, it's that the first two seasons did pick legitimate upstart broadcasters in Mike Hall and David Holmes. For all the melodrama involved, it was actually pretty cool to see a pair of dudes who put in the hard work actually achieving their dream job.
Of course, ESPN decided the show needed a spark in the third season, and completely did away with all that good will by making it into a contest to see which former NBA player would become the network's newest basketball analyst. This was shark jumpage at its absolute finest, since the candidates came down to Darryl Dawkins, J.R. Reid, Matt Bullard, Dee Brown, Dennis Scott and Gerald Wilkins, none of whom were particularly eloquent. Since pretty much all jock announcer spots are decided through nepotism, the concept of ESPN rigorously dissecting the announcer merits of lesser players was too gimmicky, and whereas the first two seasons were at least authentic, the third was like an offspring of Celebrity Apprentice -- tacky and ultimately forgettable.
In case you were curious, Dee Brown was the winner of Season 3. Brown, you may also be interested to learn, had a baby during the course of his tenure at ESPN, and he named this child "Anakin Walker Brown" in homage to Anakin Skywalker, the dark lord of the Sith who went on to become Darth Vader. So ... make of that what you will.
Stump The Schwab (2004-2006)
Lodged in the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN is an interesting tidbit about how Stump the Schwab got on the air. Howie Schwab, a longtime ESPN statistician and a complete trivia buff, was called into Mark Shapiro's office one day and was told that he was going to have his own show, where contestants would come on to challenge his vast collection of knowledge, to which Schwab responded, "Are you fucking serious?"
Schwab was a great subject for a television show. Besides the dude's instantly memorable name was the fact that a large human being existed who was somehow allowed to show up to work, at ESPN no less, in athletes' jerseys, armed with nothing more than a useless array of trivia answers. He was like the sporting equivalent of Michael Moore. The problem with the show was that unlike a Michael Moore, the Schwab was unable to carry it by himself. Outside of an occasional display of confidence, the dude was pretty stoic and just wasn't all that compelling.
Realizing this, the producers enlisted Stuart Scott as the host to provide some proxy enthusiasm and charisma after every couple exchanges. But again, there's only so far a sports trivia show can go on TV. It lasted for four seasons and can be found every now and then on ESPN Classic, so all things considered, not too shabby.
(By the way, I once saw the Schwab waiting in line at a Las Vegas airport. I was like fifty people in front of him, and I initially mistook him for Penn Jillette, but there he was. This is apropos of nothing, but I figured I'd mention it.)
Playmakers was the first original drama in ESPN's history, and although it didn't last long, the reason for its cancellation was so notable that it made the show more famous than it ever would have turned out otherwise.
The show centered on the grimy, gritty, drug-using, wife-beating, violence-inducing behavior of players on a professional football team. The show took place in a Michael Bay-like alternate universe where every second of the day was filled with steroid injections, love affairs, prostitution, abortions and someone getting their brains knocked out. Some critics enjoyed the show, like Washington Post writer Tom Shales (one of the authors of the aforementioned ESPN book), but most would agreed that Playmakers was like a soap opera, and that a lot of the episodes and characters bordered on the ridiculous. No, no one ever came back from the dead, but there was an episode where a player stole a dying kid's pain pills from a hospital.
Let's be clear, this wasn't a show headed for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was due for an epic flame-out in a season or two, like more or less every other show on this list. But the NFL didn't want to wait for that to happen. Although Playmakers was set in a fictional football league, referred to simply as "The League," the NFL knew damn well what league the show was ostensibly basing itself off of. The NFL made their complaints known to ESPN, and though the show was the highest-rated program outside of Sunday Night Football on the entire network, ESPN caved in to the pressure and cancelled the show after 11 episodes.
"The NFL is entitled to its opinion,'' John Eisendrath, the show's creator, said, ''but I think they're wrong, and I think they're bullies. They're a monopoly. I think it fell to ESPN to have the strength to stand up to the NFL's opinion.''
Great Outdoor Games (2000-2006)
ESPN has aired a great number of unusual sporting events, but only a few were created and produced by the network itself. The Great Outdoor Games was one such concoction, and it was truly bizarre. The games all had the common thread of being outdoors, but that was about it. There were shooting competitions; there was a tree-topping competition where two people would race up a poll and see who could saw off the top of it first; there were foot races on top of floating logs, chainsaw cutting races, archery races, axe chopping races, and even dog races and dog obstacle courses where the canine's leaping ability was measured by a laser. In short, it was a collection of as many weird outdoor events that were just serious enough that it wasn't a joke. Say what you will, but everything shown on the Great Outdoor Games could have plausibly made its way into the Winter Olympics and wouldn't have looked out of place -- with the exception of the dog stuff, of course.
The Life (2001-2005)
The biggest problem I have with ESPN programming today is that it tends to be horribly overproduced, sometimes laughably so; the writers' room segments on E:60 look like they were taken out of Reservoir Dogs. Look at a SportsCenter intro from 1996, with a saxophone instrumental and fairly simplistic graphics, and compare it today's SportsCenter, with its grunge music and computerized, mechanical graphics like an interface from a science fiction movie. All this is to say that what I loved about The Life was its simplicity. The show would follow an athlete, such as Allen Iverson, around for a day and see what a day in his life was like. That's it.
MTV Cribs debuted a few months ahead of The Life, and that show is still on TV to this day. So to be honest, it's hard to explain why The Life couldn't have survived on one of the million ESPN outlets, especially since The Life was far, far less nauseating to watch than Cribs; even when The Life would go into an athlete's home, it never felt gratuitous. Granted, saying a show has more merit than an MTV show is pretty meaningless in the long run, but still, ESPN could pick a worse show to rekindle.
Beg, Borrow & Deal (2002-2003)
This show was pretty much The Amazing Race with sports challenges. Everyday people would try to complete rudimentary sports challenges in certain locations, like catching a pass from quarterback in Missouri, and then getting a hit off a pitcher in Iowa. That sort of thing. But because that premise wasn't interesting enough, apparently, the competitors were also stripped of everything that had monetary value, meaning that in order to get to where they needed to go, they needed to do as the title suggested: beg, borrow and deal. It lasted for two seasons before getting canceled.
Madden Nation (2005-2008)
Continuing the cross-country reality show theme, Madden Nation focused on a bunch of gamers trying to stay on an EA/ESPN-sponsored bus as they competed in the latest version of the Madden NFL video game franchise. Madden Nation was as good as a video game reality show could possibly be. Whereas most pro gamers tend to be sort of quiet and introverted (especially South Koreans who play StarCraft), anyone who plays Madden knows that trash-talking comes with the territory. And that meant that everyone who got on the bus wasn't afraid to be cocky or a jackass in front of cameramen, which made the show interesting.
Unfortunately, it might be a while before we get to see that template recreated. Not only has Madden Nation been off the air for a while (though it's not hard to find it On Demand), it was recently announced that G4 will soon be canceling the only video game-related programming they still had, meaning that the billion-dollar gaming industry will soon be almost completely unrepresented on American television.
Cheap Seats (2004-2006)
If you liked Mystery Science Theater 3000, and you like sports, Cheap Seats is probably for you. The show was hosted by brothers Randy and Jason Sklar (think the conjoined twins on The Oblongs), who would sit through game tape of some of the absurd competitions that have crossed the ESPN airwaves over the years and mock it mercilessly. ESPN aired putt-putt tournaments, dancing competitions, spelling bees, rodeos, pet shows, roller derbies and many other events that were ripe for an MST3K-style skewering, and Cheap Seats filled the void.
There was one fateful season where the show inserted a live studio audience, which was an unspeakably awful idea since all of the jokes were voice-overs to begin with. V.O.-ing a laugh track on top of a full slate of V.O. jokes made that one season unbearable to watch. Obviously, the producers must have realized the error of their ways, because the final two seasons were unblemished by crowd laughter. And rightfully so. Unless something is organically filmed in front of a stage-like setting where you never see every angle of the room, like Seinfeld, there's no reason for a laugh track to exist.
Anyway, I leave you now with a highlight of a Cheap Seats episode that covered the 2000 Great Outdoor Games. Feel free to reminisce about this or any other ESPN show that may have aired in the comments section.