When I cast my mind back over two years of mail, searching for that taproot, the first word that came to mind was "arrogance." That wasn't the word most frequently used by fans, but accusations of arrogance were implicit in the many complaints I received about specific anchors who imposed their personalities on the news, announcers who elevated their own chatter over the game at hand, commentators who leapt to the absolute in a single shout, columnists who heaped scorn on minor sports or minor markets, and the relentless corporate "me, me, me" of multiplatform cross-promotion.
If arrogance were indeed the taproot, the message to ESPN from fans would be simple: "Get over yourselves, it's not all about you." And the solution would be as simple as ESPN asking the loudest and most self-smitten of its many personalities to tone it down.
I'm convinced that measure alone would cut the ombudsman's mail in half, but I'm not convinced it would be the solution to what ails ESPN's fans most deeply. Arrogance may be only a symptom of the second vice that came to mind when I thought about those 30,000 messages: excess.
Again, excess is not the word my correspondents used most frequently, but it is the root of all the "too much" mail I received -- as in too much Manny, T.O. and A-Rod; too much Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys and Patriots; too much Joba, Kobe and Brady (both Tom and Quinn); too much Hansbrough, Tebow and Duke; and way too much Favre...
Fans don't object to ratings-driven decisions about what games to telecast, but they do object when that selection dominates other kinds of programming, in the form of excessive advance promotion or postgame hoopla on "SportsCenter." ESPN's postgame attitude seems to be: We have the footage and the crew there live, so why not make the most of it, whether or not the game warranted it? Fan attitude seems to be: We just saw that game or chose not to, and it's late, so please give us the other news of the day.
Sometimes, ESPN seems to forget that the loyal audience of its studio programming is a subset of those who drive up ratings for the marquee events, and that by appealing to the starstruck, they risk losing the committed sports fan, whose interest runs deeper.
Two follow-up thoughts:
1. In the back of my mind, this has been my concern with ESPN picking up the domestic rights to the English Premier League. On the one hand, it would be great for footie to benefit from ESPN's gargantuan platform and resulting ability to force stories into the public consciousness. On the other hand, I can't say that I'd be thrilled with the idea of Steven Gerrard being forced onto my screen every other minute. And frankly, I shudder to think about what ESPN's Champions League coverage would be like if the WWLiS had a vested interest in plugging the English teams. Real Madrid and AC Milan would be made to look like Universitatea Craiova or Sporting Fingal F.C. ESPN has destroyed my ability to enjoy baseball; I would hope that they wouldn't do the same for soccer, but it's not impossible.
2. In light of the fact that I and many others in the blogosphere mock ESPN for shutting out criticism in a propagandish way, the network does deserve kudos for printing Ms. Schreiber's column. Not every corporate monolith will devote front page coverage to an able thinker and writer distilling the common themes of roughly 30,000 critical e-mails.