Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cynic's Guide to College Football: An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

Dear Rupert,

So I've been catching up on the news, and it looks like you've had a pretty rough week. What, with you being forced to testify before Parliament and to shut down your long-running News of the World tabloid after it was discovered your people had illegally hacked the cell phone of a missing woman. Never mind the fact that the FBI is now investigating you for doing the same thing to 9/11 victims. And that Michelle Bachmann keeps doing stupid things faster than your boys at Fox News can make excuses for her. And that your top long-time assistant and confidante just skipped out on you. Yep, it's been a tough one. I feel for you, I really do.

Rupert in happier times.

So that's why I am writing today with a proposal to help restore some of your media glory and make you a hero to millions of Americans. You can not only redeem your image, but do a huge service to us sports fans on this side of the pond. And here's all you have to do--take down ESPN.

I know, I know, that sounds like a big task. Them being the worldwide leader and all. But hear me out.

If we've learned nothing else from the reaction to the Casey Anthony verdict, it's that Americans don't take too kindly to a perceived injustice. And ESPN just committed a doozie. They suspended Bruce Feldman, one of the finest journalists in sports, for having the audacity to work with former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach on his new book, Swing Your Sword, which details Leach's final days as coach and the behind-the-scenes work by ESPN analyst Craig James to have him fired.

ESPN has reportedly scheduled a book-burning party in the corporate parking lot for this afternoon. Bring your own marshmallows.

The saga of Adam James/Mike Leach/Craig James has been well-documented, so I won't go into it here. Suffice it to say, most football fans felt that Leach was given a raw deal by Texas Tech, with the complicity of Craig James and, directly or indirectly, ESPN.

Well, guess what? Thanks to the power of the Freedom of Information Act, Feldman uncovered emails which prove that, not only was Texas Tech looking for an excuse to fire Leach, but that Craig James and his PR firm were only too happy to do their dirty work and provide the ammunition to make that happen. And for outing one of their golden boys, ESPN was quick to commit yet another injustice by indefinitely suspending Feldman from his duties. And why did they do this? Because they can. Because there is no one out there who can both hold them accountable and is big enough to offer a legitimate alternative.

And that's where you come in, Rupert. There was a time when ESPN programming was actually good. It's been a long time, but it happened. Back before Craig Kilborn went Hollywood and Keith Olbermann started wearing Birkenstocks and Che Guevara shirts. Back before "The Decision" and all-Chris-Berman-all-the-time programming. And there was one simple reason: competition.

Back then CNN ran a nightly segment called Sports Tonight that went head-to-head with SportsCenter. In the early days, CNN actually had the superior product, which forced ESPN to raise it's game. As a result, SportsCenter improved as a show, its anchors (notably the team of Olbermann and Dan Patrick) became national phenomena and the rest is history. CNN pre-empted Sports Tonightduring the disputed 2000 presidential election and it never came back in its same form, leaving ESPN as the only game in town when it came to national sports coverage.

Fred Hickman and the late Nick Charles doing sports the way it should be done.

Rupert, America needs you to rescue us. Save us from ourselves. We mindlessly turn on SportsCenter and repeat meaningless sports catchphrases (Booyah!) simply because that's all we know to do. An entire generation of young Americans has grown up thinking that sports would not exist if it were not for ESPN. We need you to help us show them it's the other way around.. And you can do that by providing us with an alternative.

Sure, the public is doing what it can. Writers across the country have jumped to Feldman's defense. And Twitter users actually had #freeBruce trending higher than Harry Potter the day before the new movie opened. But we can't do it alone, Rupert. We are asking for your help.

Fox is the only entity in America who is ready to compete with the Disney/ABC/ESPN conglomerate. Your over-the-air Fox affiliates and the cable components of Fox Sports Net are in virtually every household in America. You already have the groundwork in place to go toe-to-toe with ESPN. All it needs is a little more initiative from you and we can finally offer American sports fans a real alternative, diminish the virtually unlimited power of ESPN and help right the injustice done to Bruce Feldman.

Here's what I am asking you to do:
  1. Go national. While I enjoy the regional coverage of my favorite local teams on my Fox Sports Net affiliate, America is ready for another big fish in the pond. With the combined broadcasting power of all your various Fox sports stations, you could get your signal into almost as many households as ABC/ESPN. Yes, it'll take some money. But money is one thing you've got. Besides, you can take all the money you had planned on using to print News of the World and use it to boost your cable programming.
  2. Be bold. Don't tiptoe around the subject. Let the world know that your objective is to take on Disney and ESPN. Hire a good graphic designer to come up with a new logo or mascot to reflect your mission. Maybe a cartoon fox with a sly smile and sharp teeth. And a mouse's tail dangling out of his mouth.
  3. Don't skimp on the reporters. ESPN has gotten lazy. While there are certainly exceptions, ESPN does very little original reporting. And when they do, they usually get it wrong (see also Schad, Joe). They just steal from other sources and repackage the information with "ESPN sources report . . ." without giving proper credit. Don't make that mistake. Hire good writers for your website, ones who actually do real reporting. Guys like Bruce Feldman. It might cost you a little money in the short run to steal some guys away from ESPN and Sports Illustrated, but it will pay huge dividends in the long run.
  4. Don't be afraid to make ESPN the bad guy. Have you watched your own Fox News lately? It's very little news. It's basically 20+ hours a day of people yelling about how Barack Obama/MSNBC/Harry Reid are to blame for all of society's woes. Not trying to be political here, but you need to follow a similar model, at least to a point. You can't be afraid to pick a fight with the Mouse. Remind viewers constantly how ESPN is to blame for "The Decision". How ESPN has a huge conflict of interest in owning most of the bowl games they carry. How they suspend good journalists like Bruce Feldman for exposing one of their pretty boys, but look the other way when on-air personality Woody Paige gets caught plagiarizing stories. How ESPN is completely biased in favor of covering Texas sports and the Big 12, since they are now in bed with the Longhorns to to the tune of 20 years/$300 million. How ESPN convinced large numbers of people that poker is a sport. How ESPN is to blame for today's housing market. (OK, that last one might not be true. But then again, factual accuracy has never been one of your strongest suits, so people will expect it.)
  5. But don't forget the sports. Some commentary and well-placed jabs at the expense of your competition will be fine. But the success of Fox Sports will ride on the quality of your programming. Look, no one's expecting you to to take down the worldwide leader overnight. Certainly, you won't have anything to compete with Monday Night Football. And their SEC and Big Ten football broadcasts will probably trump your Pac-12 and secondary Big 12 games. But you can go toe-to-toe with them in baseball. And, provided you don't hire Dick Vitale, it shouldn't be hard to best their college basketball coverage. Down the line, you'll have to pony up some money to win some bidding wars for better broadcast rights. But in the short term, the real key is going to be your sports highlight shows. Think about ESPN--they basically record SportsCenter twice a day, and then just keep replaying it over and over throughout the day until it's time for "Around the Horn". If you can keep your content fresh and provide a show that is entertaining and informative to the educated fan, I think you can go head-to-head with SportsCenter.
This has all been a long-time coming. I've thought for some time that the world needed some legitimate competition for ESPN. This latest saga with Bruce Feldman just showed me how badly we need it.

This is all a big task, I know. But I also know that you have never been one to back down from a challenge. You're the only one right now with the resources to help us right a wrong and end the Disney/ABC/ESPN monopoly on American sports coverage. This won't rehabilitate your public image overnight, but it will certainly make you a hero to millions of American sports fans.

So do it for yourself. Do it for Bruce Feldman. And, even though you're not one of us, do it for America

Thank you for your attention.
American Sports Fans
P.S. Fire Joe Buck.

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