Monthly Archives: September 2019

ESPN at 40: Another list for the aged

By Tom Hoffarth
Is this where ESPN suffers a mid-life crisis like the rest of us when we hit 40?
The network’s launch on Sept. 7, 1979 was likely before many today were even born. And they will remind us of that.
For us, it landed three months after our high school graduation and pretty much at the time college started. Right in our wheelhouse, right?
We didn’t get it. Literally, figuratively or whatever other way you want to frame it.
The network plans all sorts of ways to mark this ruby anniversary. One of them is a Sept. 10 episode of “E:60” where they found the first live event the network ever telecast — a professional slo-pitch softball game between the Kentucky Bourbons and the Milwaukee Schlitzes that aired that night, has not aired since, and the video that somehow had gone missing was recently found.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of our 20th high school reunion, and try to remember what really was the most compelling sports shows of 1979 — and incredulous at how Fran Tarkenton got to be a co-host of “That’s Incredible!” — this is an opportunity to list the 40 things that pop into our head about ESPN’s run to this point.

Our personal Top 40 list:

1.  Australian Rules Football playing on the TV sets of our favorite Hermosa Beach tavern. And people watching. It’s still on somewhere, somehow.
2.  The time someone rummaging around the MGM library finds the black-and-white “Home Run Derby” from the 1950s, staged at the old Wrigley Field in L.A.,  and ESPN airs them in the late 1980s. We go to the ’89 MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim and aske Ernie Banks and Eddie Matthews that they remember about doing that show. “I liked Mark Scott, he was a nice man,” said Banks. “Eddie, you remember Mark Scott?” “Why should I remember him?” said Matthews. “I never hear from him.” Banks responded: “Oh, he’s dead.”
3.  Tom Mees, RIP
4.  The video of Jim Valvano’s ESPY speech. May it never RIP.
5.  LeBron James, Jim Gray, “The Decision,” 2010. ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer calls it “a metaphor for what ails the media today.”
One episode of “Barstool Sports” airs. Then it doesn’t.
7. “The Playmakers,” 11 episodes of a soap opera on a fictional pro football team, launches in 2003. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue complains to Disney chief Michael Eisner. “Nobody charts our programming future but us,” says ESPN executive Mark Shapiro said, who circles back after the announcement of no second season: “(It would only be) rubbing it into the faces of our most important client.” It’s then offered it up as a boxed DVD set for $49.95.
8. An awkward exit in 2013 of a collaborative effort with PBS’ “Frontline” to produce a multi-platform documentary called “League of Denial,” probing scandalous research on the long-term effects of NFL concussions. ESPN’s Vince Doria says:  “It is an easy enough story if you wanted to connect some dots to it and say, ‘Look, they kowtowed to the NFL.’ But if you looked slightly further, and look at what the on‑air product was and what we delivered and the volume of what we delivered, the platforms over which we delivered it and so forth, show me somebody else that comes anywhere near giving that kind of exposure to the concussion issue as it relates to the NFL. I don’t think there is anybody.”
9. Al Michaels refers to the talking-head/debate-rage shows — particularly “Around The Horn” — as “gasbags on parade.”
10. Jay Mariotti

51v1Td7Ns3L11. “ESPN: The Uncensored History,” by the New York Times’ Michael Freeman, 340 pages in 2001. “Part corporate history, part media and cultural analysis, and part expose,” says the PR blurb, “the book examines both the positive developments effected by the network and the bad habits it has picked up from the business it covers.” Stuff like sexual harassment, and things that happen when you’re secluded in Bristol, Conn.
Tony Kornheiser serves a two-week suspension from “Pardon the Interruption” for saying, on his radio show, that colleague Hannah Storm wore an outfit that was “horrifying” and added she looked “like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body.”
13. Brent Musburger, calling the 2013 BCS title game between Alabama and Notre Dame,  spots Katherine Webb on the monitor.
14. Pam Ward gets to do a college football play-by-play gig. In 2000. Oh, the handwringing.
15.  Beth Mowins gets to do a college football game, then “Monday Night Football” in 2017. Oh, the handwringing.
16.  Sergio Dipp gets to a “Monday Night Football” B-team sideline gig. Oh, dear.
17.  The Jon Miller-Joe Morgan run on “Sunday Night Baseball. (And the emergence/value of
18.  Curt Schilling gets to do “Sunday Night Baseball”?
19.  Jessica Mendoza gets to do “Sunday Night Baseball.”
20.  Lance Armstrong has the balls to do a monologue at the ESPY Awards in ’06 that drops a few anal and testical jokes. Hardy har har.

51BTtTE5ZsL21. “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, 763 pages dropping in 2011. Including Dick Vitale’s blurb on the back cover: “He says, ‘I’m with a new network called ESPN,’ and I swear I said something to the effect like, ‘That sounds like a disease.'”
22. Howie Schwab, laid off after 26 years? “I am extremely disappointed to say farewell,” he writes on Facebook. “I always did everything asked of me and more. What did I get in return today … word that I should get lost. The only thing that mattered was my salary, which in my view was the lone reason I lost my job.”
23. Norman Chad and Jeff Cesario overlap as hosts of ESPN Classic’s “Real Classics” Sunday night movie show in 2001. Chad discovers it’s in the cards for him to move on.
24. The first “30 For 30” episode in 2009: “Kings Ramsom,” as Peter Berg goes back to the day Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings.
25. Episode nine of “30 For 30” in 2010: “Guru of Go,” on basketball coach Paul Westhead’s run at Loyola Marymount.
26. Episode 14 of “30 For 30” in 2010: “Straight Outta L.A.,” on Ice Cube and the relationship the Los Angeles Raiders had with their fan base for 13 seasons.
27. The 2011 documentary, “The Marinovich Project,” on Todd Marinovich’s relationship with his dad, the game, and his life, by Andrew Stephan and John Dorsey.
28. ESPN buys the Classic Sports Network, makes it ESPN Classic, then essentially buries it on cable menus.
29. Erin Andrews checks out. Bigger job awaits on Fox. It’s just as well.
30. Michele Beadle’s role diminishes at ESPN. It’s just as well.

51JiyVzShnL.jpg31.ESPN The Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports,” by Anthony F. Smith, 216 pages in 2009.
32. OK, sure, John Skipper had to leave because of an extortion threat from his cocaine dealer. George Bodenheimer should never have been allowed to leave.
33. Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, and the chemistry that couldn’t be replicated.
34. Craig Kilborn’s decision to ditch “SportsCenter” to try his hand at a new Comedy Central series “The Daily Show.” It really takes off. After he leaves and Jon Stewart takes over.
35. Bob Ley’s class.
36. Holly Rowe’s courage.
37. Live coverage begins of the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2004. Gary Miller has to cover the first one. Adam Amin now has to do it.
38. A new, impressive city-block wide ESPN studio lands across the street from Staples Center in 2014, signaling recognition that the West Coast does matter to some extent.
39. There will be a “SportsCenter” studio in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip in 2020.
40. It’s the 1980-81 season. About midnight. Leaving Firestone Fieldhouse on the Pepperdine campus after covering a Waves’ basketball game against visiting USF. Winding down that narrow road toward Pacific Coast Highway and stuck behind an 18 wheeler with the large ESPN logo on the side try to navigate the turns. My thought:  Why would they bother coming all the way out here? Who actually saw that game on that cable channel unless they have one of those dish things on their roof or have cable TV — which, as far as I know, very few do. Does this make any sense?


A sign of the (L.A.) Times: There’s more from the Mort

By Tom Hoffarth
Among the things we learned with our latest check-in with ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that didn’t make it into the lead item in the latest Los Angeles Times sports media column was an exchange he said he had last weekend with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe and Mortensen go way back. Cutcliffe was the quarterbacks coach for Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Ole Miss, and still believes rookie Daniel Jones will be the real deal with the New York Giants:

NFL Live - January 31, 2019“I’m in Atlanta for the Alabama-Duke game — my son, Alex, is one of Nick Saban’s offensive analysts — and I know ‘Cut’ will be there. He’s a great human being. I left him a long-winded message on his cellphone telling him I was coming to  the game, Alex is on the other side, maybe I could say hi before kickoff. It turns out I get to this airport hotel and there’s a big sign welcoming the Duke team. He’s staying at my same hotel. So it’s seven hours before kickoff, they’re at the morning team meal, and I got in there and spent a half hour just visiting.
“He says to me, ‘Promise me one thing, Mort. Someday, you’ll write a book with 32 chapters, and each one will be about all the things you know about that NFL team that you’ve never talked about or written about. You need to tell those stories. It’ll be a magnificent book, because every time we talk, I find out something new I never knew about.’
“The truth is, I probably on disclose about five percent of what I know,” Mortensen added. “But when you’ve been in the business 50 years, that’s a pretty big slice. It’s all relative.”

More from Mortensen:

== On learning the news of Andrew Luck’s retirement from the Indianapolis Colts from an Aug. 24 tweet by colleague Adam Schefter:
“Adam and I touch base a lot, on that day I called him and said, here’s five things we need to monitor. And Andrew Luck wasn’t one of them. I asked what he was doing, and he was in the car going to his mother-in-law’s 75th surprise birthday party. So I know he’s there.
“All of the sudden I see a notification on the news wire, based on one of Adam’s tweets. I was stunned. I was probably one of many who immediately texted him: Is this your account? Sometimes, people leave their Twitter accounts open and … I know it’s got the checkmark. He said, ‘yes’ immediately.
“It’s remarkable. We don’t disclose 99.9 percent of the time our sources to each other, but he had the courage in this instance to go with it even though there are times when you might think you need another two hours of another half day to confirm it. He nailed it. One hundred percent.  I don’t know his source, but I’ll say in my time covering the NFL it was the most sudden, biggest story that shocked me. Bigger than Barry Sanders leaving Detroit.
“Breaking this on Twitter, and with Adam — I know a little more about this than I can tell you in detail — he had it, and that’s not an easy thing to go with. We have instincts about these things with our experiences. For five days, the Colts did a great job of hiding their discussions with Andrew. I’m sure Adam feels the same connection level I do with people there in the locker room, the coaching staff, and we didn’t catch a hint of it.  This just shows how good Adam’s instincts are.
“I could kick myself because when he sat out the season with the shoulder injury, I knew he wanted to get away, go to Europe and hide, that’s just the kind of person he is. I guarantee if Andrew told the team after the game (about retiring) and didn’t say anything, I wouldn’t have held long. I understand fans seeing Adam’s tweet and think Andrew is just walking away from the team. You have to allow fans to have their emotional reaction. All I know is it was Andrew’s decision and our guy – my guy – Schefter made the right decision. I did not have a hand in that. Knowing Andrew’s background a little bit, maybe my antenna should have been up. But it doesn’t matter. Adam won the day. Our team won.”

== Mortensen responded a day later with this tweet:

He explained:
“Steve Beuerlein, someone who was in the league 17 years and has credibility with me, says this and when I reached out to some people — retired quarterbacks, many who didn’t want to be quoted — they agreed: You don’t walk out on your team in August. Go on the IR. If you’re going to retire, do it in March. So when Steve stepped out with this and explained himself people turned on him and said: ‘You don’t think Luck is tough enough and quit on his team.’ That’s not at all what Steve said.
“The more I think about this — and I know we’ll talk more about this story in the weeks ahead — maybe he did the Colts a favor. If he’s on the IR and maybe comes off in Week 12, this could have hung over Jacoby Brissett. Maybe this wasn’t Andrew’s motivation, but the unintended consequences could work out. Everything I know is Jacoby could have handled this either way.
“The bottom line is Andrew knows his body. Just watch his press conference and you know what he said was heartfelt. There’s no denying his competitiveness and skill. I’m not sure I agree with how he did it, but he did it, it’s his life, he did it his way and I can appreciate that.”

More with Mortensen:
== Thanks to to preserving the essence of a now-deleted blog post we did with Mortensen in May, 2016, talking about his progress as well as how he would be watching the NFL draft.
== An Oct. 2016 piece by Brian Curtis of The Ringer on Mortensen’s initial cancer treatments and comeback.
== An Oct. 2017 piece by Peter King of MMQB on Mortensen’s return.

09.02.19: Five things for the week ahead based on unscientific evidence of guaranteed importance

Without 2020 foresight, we’ve got no strong guess as to who will live it up in Super Bowl LIV this February in Miami. A Rams-Patriots rematch would be one thing. A Rams-Chargers strategy meeting prior to sharing a new stadium in Inglewood would be quite a Hollywood ending.
Then we have our friend, Norman Chad, declaring the Jacksonville Jags his “2019 Team of Destiny,” if only for the basic logic is that’s where Nick Foles is these days. The one-time Rams backup QB is taking over a team once led by Blake Bortles, now the current Rams’ backup to Jarred Goff. The Rams don’t face Jacksonville in the regular season, so there is no awkwardness to deal with. But honest to goodness, we didn’t even know the Jags were in the AFC South with Tennessee, Indianapolis and Houston until we just looked it up.
The Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs are actually the co 6-to-1 favorites to win the Super Bowl according to, with the Rams among four teams at 12-to-1 (with Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia.) The Chargers come in at 18-to-1. The Jags? The 13th favorite at 25-to-1.
Indianapolis, which just saw starting QB Andrew Luck shut it down, are now 60-to-1 coming into the season opener at the Dignity Health Park Center in Carson to meet up with the Chargers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m., Channel 2).
The Carolina Panthers, who are concerned about QB Cam Newton’s foot sprain, are 50-to-1 when they meet up with the Rams (Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 11).
The rest of this holiday week includes College Football Wk2 — USC hosting Stanford and UCLA hosting San Diego State on Saturday; the Dodgers back home against Colorado and San Francisco; the U.S. Open tennis tournament comes to a close without the men’s No. 1 seed; and the Sparks finish off the WNBA regular season. It’s at this link.