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A modest proposal during our sports hiatus: ESPN needs to get weird. Marble-racing weird

No sports? No problem . . . if ESPN embraces the curiosities lurking in its archives. Think baby racing, cheese rolling, and chess boxing.

A modest proposal during our sports hiatus: ESPN needs to get weird. Marble-racing weird

Now that it’s been a few days since all major American sports leagues and operations have shut down due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, we’ve gone through a full cycle of broadcasts, podcasts, and Twitter threads about who, why, and the immediate impact. Plus, we got to have a debate about players supporting arena staff when their billionaire bosses wouldn’t step up to make up for their lost wages.

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Now, the reality of no sports is about to hit tens of millions of fans, and it will be disorienting for many, especially during what is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year.

We’re all about to find out what happens when the $22 billion U.S. sports media industry loses the bulk of its content.

Programmers at ESPN, Fox, and elsewhere now have their moment to shine. For sports networks, broadcasters, and commentators, this shutdown represents a creative challenge like no other. Any schlub can broadcast a live basketball tournament, but true genius is found in curing social-distancing boredom at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday by picking just the right cheerleading championship in the content library.

Already there are rumors that ESPN is planning to launch its long-awaited documentary series The Last Dance, about the 1998 Chicago Bulls. But until then, and depending on how long the stoppage lasts, the Worldwide Leader could dip into its extensive back catalog of classic games, tournaments, and series to create new Best Of content for fans to relive.

Sports podcasts will undoubtedly dip into the past, taking the opportunity to relitigate the greatest moments, games, and players, thanks to the magic of YouTube.

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On Monday, UK soccer magazine Mundial brilliantly organized a collective rewatch of the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France, live-tweeting the match as it happened.

If things really drag on, though, here’s an idea: Go deep in the archives. No, keep going. Have you hit the rock-paper-scissor championships yet? Then you haven’t gone far enough.

Before 1987, when ESPN started airing National Football League games, the “Worldwide Leader” was popular but had more of a cult following, in part because of it filling its 24 hours of daily airtime with the kind of arcana that had never really seen the light of day before. Polo matches. National putt-putt championships. Bodybuilding tournaments. What really made these things work as compelling television was the contrast between the low-stakes nature of the events and the earnestness with which they were covered by the ESPN announcers.

ESPN has mined the absurdity of its early history for content before: In 2004, it launched Cheap Seats, with the comedians Jason and Randy Sklar, riffing during this archival gold on the ESPN Classic network. Then, after years of people like Bill Simmons suggesting that ESPN pick up the joke made about the network during the movie Dodgeball (the matches in the film aired on ESPN 8, or “The Ocho,” as it was lovingly mocked, as befitting a network whose star anchor in the 1990s archly dubbed its first spinoff, ESPN 2, as “The Deuce”), it finally did so in 2017 as a one-day event on August 8 (8/8, get it?), airing Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball, American Disc Golf Championships, and Roller Derby to give modern-day viewers a taste of the most obscurely strange sports from around the world.

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The weirdness was successful enough to attract major brand sponsors, with State Farm sponsoring last year’s iteration. In 2018, then-presenting sponsor KFC created its own Ocho content, pitting people against each other in a variety of sporting challenges while wearing chicken buckets on their heads.

Give this shutdown a few months and we’ll be asking for a replay.

So why not? How long before you’re actually interested in knowing who won the 2018 World Sign Spinning Championships?

Of course, the online archives of Shin Kicking and Wife Carrying will eventually run out, so maybe we need to get more inanimate.

Like die-cast car races.

For those who feel especially desperate for the emotion, the intensity, the sheer joy and exhilaration of sports? Two words: marble racing.

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How long did it take before you were actually rooting for light blue?

Mesmerizing.

Let’s do this, ESPN. We’re this close to being ready.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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