Cable cancels ESPN’s culture (and other confusing conundrums)

In 1994, Major League Baseball cancelled its World Series.  It was the first time in American history that had ever happened.  Our national pastime reminded all those watching that baseball was first and foremost, a business.  It was a shock to the system from which the sport took years to recover.

Matt Williams was on pace to break the old home record that year, Roger Maris’ 61 in 1961.  Williams had hit 43 homers in 112 games played until there wasn’t a 113th.  Tony Gwynn, who routinely flirted with hitting .400, was also on a pace for greatness.  He would become the first hitter since Ted Williams to do so.  Gwynn finished the 1994 season playing in 110 games and hitting .394.  It was the Hall of Famer’s highest batting average in twenty seasons as a Padre.

The players and owners reconciled their differences in 1995 but not before the damage had been done.  Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played, breaking Lou Gehrig’s previous iron man streak, garnered fans’ attention, but many still had a bad taste in their mouths.  Baseball needed more to get itself back into the fans’ good graces.

Then came the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998.  Now exiled, baseball once heroized those men, using them to bring itself back into the mainstream.  And it worked.

An inherently American institution interrupted by another, greed, the strike of 1994 was all about money and two sides unable to divvy up the pie.

I am reminded of this because we were just in the middle of yet another, channel-changing, money-grab unlike we have never seen.  My how times have changed since the days my great grandfather only had three buttons on his clicker for, as Roger Waters once sang, “13 channels of shit on my TV to choose from.”

Not long ago, I wrote of the still ongoing squabble between NBC and DirecTV, which might not affect you but try running an Irish pub and explaining to your clientele why you don’t carry the Notre Dame game.  Recently, Spectrum and ESPN entered the battlefield with Spectrum no longer showing any of Disney-owned channels, which as you know includes all of ESPN.  To make matters worse, the cable network blacked out their coverage here in Florida only minutes before ESPN was slated to broadcast the Gators’ season kickoff against Utah.  In retrospect, Florida fans who watched their opener through other means wished they’d subscribed to Spectrum and been blacked out like the rest of us.

I won’t bore you with who owed what whom.  We’re talking about dollar figures that none of us can comprehend but as usual the fan is left paying the cost, the result of the cable and sports conglomerates’ inability to see eye to eye.

Not long ago, I wrote that the NFL is veering Icarusly close to making its sport inaccessible to the masses and teetering dangerously with the laws of supply and demand.  With Disney’s rising expenses (and plummeting stock prices), the mouse looked to recoup some of those from Spectrum with Spectrum saying no thank you.  This all happened before our very eyes; the irony is that we couldn’t watch.  These days, we need a score card (with a pencil and eraser) to keep track of what games we can watch on which networks and how much we’ll now have to pay.

I can assure you I rank among one of the world’s most ardent sports fans, but I do have other things I can do than watch sports on television.  Currently, I’m on a quest to find more than one Wes Anderson film I like and more than one Paul Thomas Anderson film I understand.  I assure you that’s more difficult than it sounds.

Trying to figure out which networks are showing which games, who and how much we’ll have to pay for each has become more confusing than keeping track of all my fantasy teams.  I ask you.  Who has time for all this nonsense and when do we knock it down on our list of priorities?  I’m not saying I wish for a simpler time nor am I naïve enough to think that escalating player salaries and television contracts wouldn’t eventually hit my pocketbook or disable me from simply watching a game.

But I do know that once baseball pulled the wool over my eyes, I never looked back.  I enjoy sports more than most.  I’ve run a sports-related website for years.  But I’m not going to be fleeced again.  And I’m sure not going to pay for the fleecing.

In the end, wiser heads prevailed.  Just as Spectrum had cancelled its ESPN coverage hours before the Florida Gator game, they restored it hours before the first Monday Night Football of the season aired.  Since we started this post with historical comparisons, another one came to mind as the two sides reached an agreement.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidential election in large part because of his inability to safely retrieve American hostages in Iran.  The media coverage was incessant with Nightline beginning each broadcast with its count of how many days Americans had been held hostage.  As soon as Ronald Reagan won that election, the hostages were almost immediately released.

Understanding the NFL’s reach, the last thing Spectrum wanted on Tuesday morning was to field phone calls from a bunch of angry football-denied customers cancelling their subscription.  People could finally go back to watching football in the comfort of their own homes.

This won’t be the last time we see sports leagues or football conferences or networks or cable conglomerates arguing about who gets paid what.  And it sure won’t be the last time the customer pays the price.  Just be prepared to have something else to do in the meantime so you’re not held hostage.

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