BY ALEX RUSSELL
I love March.
March is a beautiful month for sports for many reasons, but it’s obviously primarily about March Madness. I watch the “Second Round” (I refuse to not put that in quotes, we’ll call it the “Second Round” if you add more games, dammit) every year in Vegas. I have multiple screens going. I’m in too many pools to remember. I pretend I know anything about Vermont or Albany. I watch the tournament the same way a lot of people do: completely. THE ONLY WAY.
Since March becomes entirely about basketball in the sports world, it also becomes about the way it’s all presented. It’s all online now, so a lot of it will be watched by people at work and on phones, but on TV it’s on CBS, TNT, TBS, and truTV. That means you’ll see a lot of ads for shows you have no intention of watching (I’m starting to think Mike and Molly is a social experiment to see if we’ll literally watch anything) but you won’t have to watch a second of ESPN.
ESPN does many things well. Monday Night Football is the only place you see a network seem to genuinely believe Bills/Dolphins might be the next Greatest Show on Turf. SportsCenter is a very watchable seventeen hour version of scores, plays, and references from R.E.M. songs. ESPN.com has links on it and functions.
But a growing percentage of sports fans are moving to other ways to consume their sports journalism. Just as it’s rare now for people to read a sports page box score to figure out the story of Nuggets/Clippers, it will eventually be rare that people go to ESPN to even see “what’s going on.” We’re a long way from that, but I’ve been able to cut my ESPN diet down to basically just live sports.
Watching pregame shows explain what the Harlem Shake is or post game shows explain that apparently this LeBron James fella can shoot pretty well doesn’t add any value to my experience. That’s why I love March. Once you’ve made your picks in your office pool and you’ve figured out where you want to watch the games you’re done. You can just turn on CBS and watch them, free of ESPN telling you what shampoo Tom Izzo uses and how that impacts his legacy.
I’m not saying ESPN doesn’t have a purpose. Yelling about sports is entertaining. Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn are amazingly loud and cover the day’s sports stories in an entertaining way. They just also suffer from ESPN’s issue that First Take has, which is that debate requires two sides. Not every story has two rational sides, but there’s no story to “we all think the Heat are pretty good” or “a bunch of reporters think Jim Boeheim is being an asshole.”
ESPN’s decision hasn’t been to just let everyone make a case, it’s been to force people to pick sides. So whenever you think ESPN must be trolling you, realize that you’re right. It’s why Skip Bayless exists. It’s “good television” but it has no place in March. You leave March alone.
If you need an example of this, a few years ago Around the Horn panelist Tim Cowlishaw “won” the show and used his time at the end to give a defense of the BCS system that controls college football. He gave a rousing explanation of why we need to get rid of March Madness and brackets in favor of a BCS-themed system in college hoops. If he’s joking, that’s a high level trolling. If he’s not, it’s far too much of a hand tip about what ESPN’s trying to do. They want you to respond, even if it’s negatively. Because love and hate are eyes on the screen. Disinterest is their opposite.
So when you’re watching the same Bud Light commercial for the ninetieth time in an afternoon this month, just try to enjoy the fact that it’s almost all basketball. It’s not image, it’s not branding, and it’s not “sports culture.” It’s just 800 guys shooting hoops in arenas, all hoping they’re the team that gets to beat Duke. Which is pretty special, both because it’s a neat concept and because Duke will probably lose.
Man, I hate Duke.