It has been two years since I first logged on to the ombudsman's mailbag, wondering what I would find there and how I might use it to guide this column. What I found was a goldmine of informed, passionate, often eloquent complaints from fans who want to love ESPN as much as they love sports. My initial and lasting response to this mail, now totaling close to 30,000 messages, was to think, I will never be able to do justice to the volume, intensity, variety and legitimacy of these concerns.
My approach to that mail and this column was determined to a great extent by the arithmetic -- the long division of 30,000 messages by 24 columns. Month by month, I tried to find the common roots of complaints that sprouted from the vast terrain of ESPN's many programs and platforms.
For this final column, I set myself the task of digging deeper, of trying to find the taproot of discontent from which the whole blooming variety of complaints emerge. The goal was simply to leave one last message to ESPN from the fans who wrote me.
When I cast my mind back over two years of mail, searching for that taproot, the first word that came to mind was "arrogance." That wasn't the word most frequently used by fans, but accusations of arrogance were implicit in the many complaints I received about specific anchors who imposed their personalities on the news, announcers who elevated their own chatter over the game at hand, commentators who leapt to the absolute in a single shout, columnists who heaped scorn on minor sports or minor markets, and the relentless corporate "me, me, me" of multiplatform cross-promotion.
If arrogance were indeed the taproot, the message to ESPN from fans would be simple: "Get over yourselves, it's not all about you." And the solution would be as simple as ESPN asking the loudest and most self-smitten of its many personalities to tone it down.
I'm convinced that measure alone would cut the ombudsman's mail in half, but I'm not convinced it would be the solution to what ails ESPN's fans most deeply. Arrogance may be only a symptom of the second vice that came to mind when I thought about those 30,000 messages: excess.
Again, excess is not the word my correspondents used most frequently, but it is the root of all the "too much" mail I received -- as in too much Manny, T.O. and A-Rod; too much Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys and Patriots; too much Joba, Kobe and Brady (both Tom and Quinn); too much Hansbrough, Tebow and Duke; and way too much Favre.
The killjoy effect
Much of the "too much" mail I received came from fans who wanted to see their own favorite teams and players get a fairer share of coverage. More telling was the mail I received from fans of ESPN's favored few. "Favre was one of my favorite players in the NFL," wrote a fan from Kansas City. "Now I'm just sick of hearing about him."
Although the killjoy effect can linger for years, it takes less than a season to engender. "Why don't you write about how ESPN's overcoverage is killing interest?" a fan from Seattle asked in January. "The latest example is [Davidson College basketball star] Stephen Curry, who was a joy to watch during the NCAA tournament last year, and now ESPN has already begun to wring every last drop of joy out of watching him."
The allergic reaction to overcoverage can also be seen in the results of some SportsNation polls on ESPN.com. Toward the end of the NFL regular season, the poll question, "Do you want to see the Cowboys in the playoffs?" got a 70 percent "No" response. Asked if "Brett Favre should return to the Jets," 72 percent answered, "No."
When a sports media empire repeatedly turns fans off some of sports' most talented players, both established and emerging, something is wrong. And yet the message from fans that I have found hardest to impress upon ESPN's executives and talent is this: The predictable day-after-day dominance on ESPN of certain marquee teams and players is making a lot of fans both heartsick and cynical.
Why does ESPN resist the message? Because they see strong counterevidence in what matters most: event telecast ratings. Marquee teams and superstar players draw the audience that justifies the escalating billions ESPN pays in rights fees. From a telecast-ratings perspective, there seems to be no such thing as too much Yanks, Red Sox, Cowboys, Patriots, Manny, Kobe … you know the list.
What event ratings can't tell you
I can't argue with that reality, and the fact is most fans don't argue with it, either. Most fans who write me don't object to watching marquee teams or superstars play. What they object to is announcers or analysts or anchors who place grossly disproportionate emphasis on one superstar's performance, as if football or baseball or basketball were an individual sport played against a nameless opponent.
They object even more vehemently to announcers who, when assigned to games without marquee appeal, divert their attention from the teams actually present to the more ESPN-favored teams playing on the field of announcer dreams.
Fans don't object to ratings-driven decisions about what games to telecast, but they do object when that selection dominates other kinds of programming, in the form of excessive advance promotion or postgame hoopla on "SportsCenter." ESPN's postgame attitude seems to be: We have the footage and the crew there live, so why not make the most of it, whether or not the game warrants it? Fan attitude seems to be: We just saw that game or chose not to, and it's late, so please give us the other news of the day.
Sometimes, ESPN seems to forget that the loyal audience of its studio programming is a subset of those who drive up ratings for the marquee events, and that by appealing to the starstruck, they risk losing the committed sports fan, whose interest runs deeper.
The last message
In a previous column, I wrote, "The endlessly swirling synergy of events programming continuously reinforced by pre- and post-event shows, by preseason and postseason shows, by news shows that cover those events and by opinion shows that derive their topics from those events is a business model both extremely effective and extremely transparent."
I would like to revise that statement by deleting "extremely effective." We now know that any business model based on the assumption the rich can get endlessly richer is bound to implode.
That is why, when searching for the taproot of discontent within those 30,000 messages, I settled upon the excesses of coverage that provoke fans to send me their virtual shouts of "MAKE IT STOP. PLEASE. IT'S TOO MUCH." Those viewers are sounding a potentially empire-saving alarm.
Overcoverage of the favored few teams and players not only kills joy through its sheer tedium, it is also the root of fan grievances about bias, about cross-promotion, and about corporate conflict of interest. I suspect the perceived arrogance of particular ESPN personalities would become a small-potatoes complaint if it were not magnified in fans' minds by the consequences of other forms of excess.
So what's the one last message I want to leave ESPN? I guess it would have to be: Don't be so predictable. Subtext: Stop trying to make the publicity-rich ever richer. Spread the wealth around before fans turn on ESPN the way investors have turned on bankers.
Chances of message getting through?
Actually, over the long haul, I think the chances are pretty good. If you step back and take the long view, a perspective advanced years forces on me, you will realize ESPN did not become the phenomenal success it is by underestimating the intelligence of the sports fan. As someone who ran a newspaper sports section in the pre-ESPN era, I can tell you that the average fan is incomparably more informed about every aspect of what makes a sport tick than was once imaginable.
It was ESPN that peeled back the layers for fans -- revealing how players, teams, coaching staffs, front offices, leagues and conferences, their marketers and commissioners, agents and recruiters mesh. Knowledge once considered arcane is now elementary education for ESPN's audience.
It is too late for ESPN to dial it back or dumb it down, too late to satisfy the savvy core audience it created with the thin gruel of sound bites, shouting heads and the celebrations of the obvious. If it wants to sustain its success, ESPN has no choice but to keep getting smarter. Its audience demands it.
In my time as ombudsman, I have tried to be a conduit for that demanding audience, not only in this column but in hundreds of direct interactions with ESPN executives, producers, editors, reporters, columnists, anchors and analysts. Nobody has ever tried to shut me up or shut me out. They responded to my every request for information and explanation. They listened, agreed, disagreed, weighed what I had to say in your name as well as mine. That weighing will continue long after I am gone, because you will still be here, making your minds known to the next ombudsman and in myriad other ways.
At this writing, I do not know who my successor will be, but I trust he or she will pick up where you and I left off. I'll keep my eye on the mailbag for a week or so, but other than that, I am now one of you, just another savvy sports fan.
In parting, I want to thank all of you who wrote and all of you at ESPN who listened.
I'll miss you.