ESPN’s New Look is a Message to Its Competitors that It is Still ESPN—The Monday Morning Realist


Every Monday morning, Section 215’s Akiem Bailum gives an in-depth and unfiltered look at all of the latest sports news in The Monday Morning Realist. You can follow Akiem on Twitter @AkiemBailum.

Realists, let’s be honest. It is pretty fun to bash the heck out of ESPN. As exalted as the four-letter network is for being a purveyor of all (or should we say, most) things sports in the United States, it is somewhat fun catch Bristol with its underwear exposed at times.

Such as when Skip Bayless makes idiotic comments on LeBron James on First Take that are so outlandish that it makes you wonder if in another life, King James stole all of Bayless’ girlfriends in high school. Or, the perpetual fondling that ESPN seemingly gives to the nether regions of certain superstars like LeBron James, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, and others. Or its refusal to sufficiently cover sports such as the NHL that are increasing in popularity, but doesn’t have a financial contract with ESPN to air their games.

Or, even the fact that the powers that be in Bristol feel that they’re so “big for their britches” that they charge $8 per cable subscriber for their family of networks.

So, when ESPN does even more stuff that makes you go, “Hmmm…” such as giving their SportsCenter talent a brand-spanking new state-of-the-art studio, it makes one go, “Oh my goodness, they’ve done it again!”

Actually, this is one of the few things that the four-letter folks actually seemed to get right. Their SportsCenter set has been in use since 2004-2005 and their graphics package was starting to become less aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. Apparently, ESPN had kept under wraps that along with the debut of the new set that an updated graphics package would debut across all of the ESPN “plex” of networks.

ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN News all debuted its brand new clothes shortly after the inaugural SportsCenter from the new studio. ESPN Classic soon followed, and as this column was being written, I found out that ESPNU had also switched over to the updated look, which included an updated Bottom Line.

Also, as I was writing this, I found out that it looks like it will be more of a transitional period than anything else. On the TV simulcast of ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike, they are still using the “now” old graphics.

The one issue I see with the updated graphics is that the Bottom Line appears to be less vibrant than what was shown previously. It uses a lot of black, white, and gray. I would have preferred for the red that was prominent in the previous Bottom Line to remain, or go back to the old days when ESPN would use a different color for the Bottom Line of its channels, such as red for the main ESPN and blue for ESPN 2. When scores are shown, the team logos do stand out more in the midst of all of that black, white, and gray.

But thanks to this thing called high-definition television, black white and gray of today even looks different than the black, white, and gray of yesterday.

One thing, Realists, that probably has Bristol brass shaking their heads is that they wish they could have debuted their new digs immediately after yesterday’s Instant Classic between Portugal and the USA in the World Cup. After what happened in the last ten seconds of that game, doing postgame of that from their new studios, regardless of the outcome (given the ratings that had to have received) would’ve been perfect. They would have essentially been using that match as a lead-in.

It is nothing new (or shouldn’t be much new) for ESPN to change its look. After all, it has consistently changed its look to adapt to new technology and with the fact that graphics are seemingly chucked in our faces with ever increasing frequency year after year after year. Some of us are probably old enough to remember the days when ESPN, Classic, and The Deuce all used the same graphics while ESPN News (at the time in competition with the old CNN SI Network) used its own graphics for it to stand out as it used a more news-channel friendly presentation in many ways.

News has since also succumbed to using the same ESPN graphics as everyone else and is essentially now running more of ESPN’s more notable programs (Mike & Mike replays, SportsNation, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, Olbermann, etc.) in a perpetual loop since SportsCenter has since transitioned itself into being a virtual 24-hour program itself.

So, what makes this aesthetic makeover for the network different? A couple of things.

Obviously, the expanded, high-tech, state-of-the-art set is one thing. A well-viewed picture was shown on Twitter last night of some of ESPN’s employees watching SportsCenter’s debut from at the new set…from the old set. What happens with the old set is anyone’s guess. Who knows—for all I they could turn it into a playplace for ESPN anchors and behind-the-scenes staff.

The second (and more important) thing to note is that this is happening at a period in time where ESPN is in a more competitive sports environment. With sports being one of the very few things left on television you can see live as it occurs, sports programming is experiencing a renaissance, particularly sports like the NFL, NBA, and NHL—all hits with the 18-34 demographic (hint, hint, MLB!).

What ESPN is really doing is taking a shot at the rest of their competition. As if to say, “Hey, you guys may be the new kids on the block that has the community talking, but we’re still the fly dudes on the street with the fancy cars and the hot girlfriends!” They’re taking a shot at CBS, NBC, and Fox, all of whom have recently launched TV and radio equivalents to ESPN.

All four radio networks are very strong, and CBS and NBC’s have launched their radio channels, primarily on the backs of former ESPN personalities, including Erik Kuselias, Brian Kenny, and John Stashower (NBC) and Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb (CBS).

The Tiffany Network (CBS) has not done much with its channel other than Doug Gottlieb and Allie LaForce’s “Lead Off” Show, Jim Rome’s TV show, and a few NFL programs. NBC also has an okay set of programs as well, but it gets the most notoriety during the NHL season and Olympics. Fox debuted not one, but two all-sports channels last year, and has tried to brand itself as an outlandish alternative to ESPN.

In fact, Fox Sports Live’s Twitter account tweeted this in response to ESPN putting on its fresh new Armanis:
“Some things can be compensated for with new technology…some can’t. (GIF of Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole dancing in the Fox Sports Live studio)”–@FoxSportsLive on Twitter

I get it. Fox Sports Live is clearly positioning itself against ESPN, and it’s a positioning message I’m in favor of. But, unfortunately (especially if you’re one like me who wants healthy competition for four-letter folks since competition’s purpose is to make everyone better), ESPN is still blowing away Fox ratings wise. Its “Crowd Goes Wild” program with Regis Philbin was a colossal fail and there’s even talking that Fox College Saturday may go the way of the dinosaur as well since it cannot hold a candle to ESPN’s College Gameday.

Also, it is ironic that I mention Onrait and O’Toole—they arrived last year in the States by way of ESPN’s Canadian sister network, TSN, which ESPN owns a minority stake in along with Bell Media. They and its French equivalent RDS are still (for now) using the old ESPN graphics for its Bottom Line.

In addition, all four major North American sports leagues are in existence and each has updated its graphics package at least once since their respective debuts.

But, what ESPN’s new look suggests is something beyond the typical. It is a shot at its competitors, particularly CBS, Fox, and NBC. This is as if to say, that even with any inroads they may make with bidding for sports packages and anything else they may do, sports media still runs through Bristol. Disney just proved that again, simply through the cold hard cash they just invested in this new project with the updated graphics and new SportsCenter set.

Plus, the mistake that ESPN’s competition is doing (and perhaps what Bristol is realizing if they are smart) is that with the ballyhooed debuts of the CBS, NBC, and Fox sports channels, it gives them a sense of over-anticipation. Those channels could be asking for too much, too quickly in terms of ratings, so any small hiccup by either of them is going to be looked at as a failure. After all, ESPN itself was not an instant success and even the idea of 24-hour channels on TV and radio devoted to nothing but sports were laughed at back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the old saying goes, the rest is history.

The only other thing to decipher now is what responses come down the pike for ESPN’s competitors at CBS, Fox, and NBC.

Maybe Fox gives its robot mascot, Cleatus, its own show.