The death of popular longtime ESPN personality Stuart Scott from cancer at age 49 — news that was announced through tears by longtime colleague Hannah Storm on “SportsCenter” Sunday morning and led to a couple of days of heartfelt tributes, remembrances, and homage — meant that this was certain to go down as one of the sadder weeks in the network’s history.
But it came wrapped in a strange dichotomy, one that encourages celebration in a week in which no one at ESPN is much in the mood.
Though one had little to do with the other beyond making a difficult juxtaposition of emotions even more obvious, it turned out that the network’s week of sadness was also one of unprecedented success.
As it turned out, this was the most-watched week in the 35-year history of ESPN.
It does not take much consideration beyond a mental review of the week’s most memorable sports highlights to recognize why.
During the seven-day span from Dec. 29 to Jan. 4, ESPN broadcasted three of the eight most-viewed programs in cable television history. The Sugar Bowl featuring Ohio State’s victory over Alabama at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Day averaged 28.271 million viewers. The Rose Bowl between Oregon and Florida State earlier in the day drew a slightly smaller audience, averaging 28.164 million.
The first two games in the inaugural college football playoff are the two most-viewed programs in the history of cable television, and there’s a decent chance Monday night’s Oregon-Ohio State championship game (8:30 p.m., ESPN) seizes the top spot. If you want to see the playoff expanded from four teams to eight — and who doesn’t? — the case for doing so begins with these extraordinary viewership numbers.
It wasn’t just the college football playoff that brought viewers to the network. The first NFL postseason game ever to air on ESPN also drew a predictably larger audience despite a relative clunker of a matchup.
The Panthers’ 27-16 victory over the Cardinals last Saturday in the wild-card round earned 21.678 million viewers, making it the eighth most-viewed program in cable television history.
It made for a successful week at ESPN, even as it was accompanied by deep sadness.
All hands on deck
ESPN revealed its various plans and platforms for “supplementing” its coverage of the Oregon-Ohio State championship game, and let’s put it this way: calling it supplementary is a rare understatement by the network.
Beyond the traditional telecast, which will be called by Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, with Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi reporting from the sidelines, ESPN will provide more than a dozen alternate productions across its various multimedia platforms.
Among the most interesting options is the Film Room broadcast on ESPN2. A huge hit last year when unveiled during the national title game, it features a group of football personalities — including ESPN analysts Chris Spielman and Tom Luginbill, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, and Nebraska coach Mike Riley — breaking down plays from various angles and analyzing the game in real time.
That’s for the diehards. Over on ESPNU, there will be what sounds like a more casual viewing party. Titled “ESPN Voices,” this will take viewers into a specially created theater — call it Mystery Sports Theater 3000 — in which a cross-section of network personalities from multiple sports casually discuss the game. They will include Jay Bilas, Aaron Boone, Julie Foudy, Barry Melrose, Mark Schlereth, and Michael Wilbon. It might be fun and it might be a disaster, but it’s interesting enough to check in on for confirmation one way or another.
The mastery of calculated contrarianism is one of the reasons the hosts of The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Massarotti” afternoon drive program have fat ratings and contracts. I’m chronically puzzled why any sports fan and sports radio listener consciously allows themselves to be antagonized day after day, but hosts Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti have typically balanced the program with enough humor and entertaining discussion that the annoying moments of deliberate agitation are mostly tolerable.
Tuesday, however, Felger in particular made a shrill and unbecoming misstep. On the occasion of Pedro Martinez’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Felger chose to dwell and speculate on the possibility that the undersized pitcher who dominated the swollen sluggers of the performance-enhancing drug era might have used something himself.
Felger had nothing whatsoever to go on other than the lifeblood of conspiracy theorists in all walks of life: suspicion by association. His evidence? Martinez once worked out with a dubious trainer. Oh, and there was a 13-year-old Associated Press story in which the pitcher was said to have put on 12 pounds of muscle over the winter.
It’s a shame, but no player of that era is 100 percent free of some skepticism. We did not need Felger to remind us of this. We simply do not know who did what, which is why the judge-and-jury guessing game by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America when it comes to considering the Hall of Fame worthiness of such muscle-bound sluggers as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza is so annoying and flawed.
But to spend so much time speculating on Martinez — Felger continued the obnoxious filibuster on Comcast SportsNet New England that night — is not just petty and irresponsible, but tone-deaf. On the occasions when Felger is challenged on his contrarianism, his default mode is to call those who disagree with him some variation of a suck-up homer fanboy. Sometimes he even has a point.
But Tuesday — a day in which one of the most accomplished and charismatic athletes in recent Boston sports lore received the ultimate acknowledgment — was a time for celebration, not transparent and relentless cynicism based on the thinnest of speculations. Instead, Felger took the opportunity to do a triple lindy into the punch bowl. He should know better. His listeners — the best of them, anyway — are fans. Tuesday should have been an occasion for them to enjoy the moment with Martinez rather than to be unfairly forced into sticking up for a player who should not require defending.