Since its inception in 1979, ESPN has been a network built on the principle of quantity over quality. One of the first niche networks, ESPN was based on the simple concept of showing sports, any kind of sports, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Since then the network has grown from its early days when “World’s Strongest Man” competitions and billiards filled the meat of the schedule to its present-day status as the network for all things sport.
It has done so on the back of the concept of more. ESPN has become the master of hype. Saturday mornings during college football season get the same amount of pregame coverage that Super Bowl Sundays did 20 years ago. Heck, everyday gets more coverage than those old Super Bowls, with hours of live SportCenters endlessly dissecting and discussing even the most minute of sports-related minutiae. If only health insurance reform had received the same treatment.
Most of all the network has grown by endlessly hyping sports and then covering its own hype; witness its invention of this recent generation of wide receiver/diva/entertainer. Or just look at its role in the LeBron James saga.
It is the one single force most responsible for a sports scene that has, as ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons , who came up with the idea for the series, wrote recently, “Too many choices, noise, extremes, niches, forums, opinions, too many people trying to stand out… How could a moment stand out…when everything gets televised or covered? It’s total sports overload… How would you differentiate substance from nonsense?”
Amazingly, there are moments when ESPN still can. Or at least, there was one moment when they could, when they dreamed up their “30 for 30” series. Coinciding with the network’s 30th birthday, “30 for 30” is a series of documentaries covering a wide array of sports events from the past 30 years, everything from the death of Len Bias, the arrest and trial of a teenage Allen Iverson, to the Colts’ move from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
Released in a sporadic, seemingly random pattern over the past few months, the series has nevertheless become a must-see for me. Just last week a documentary on Edmond native and BMX legend Matt Hoffman was premiered just in time for the X Games.
I actually loathe the X Games, with its endless promotions of Mountain Dew and Taco Bell and guys saying “dude” in every sentence. But “The Birth of Big Air”, directed by Jeff Tremaine was a revelation, showing the beating heart behind a sport and a lifestyle that ESPN has endlessly hyped and marketed over the past decade. Watching Hoffman sacrifice his health and nearly his life as he basically invented a sport and then pushed it to its limits reminded me that there is actually a heart to what the network has turned into a near-cliché.
Perhaps that is what is so surprising about the series. A network that seems to know only how to shout has found, at least temporarily, its inside voice. There is a freedom that has been granted the directors by the network that shines through in every film. One example is “The Two Escobars," a film about the Colombian soccer team in the late 1980s to early 90s. This was a team fueled by the cocaine fortunes of the 1970s and 80s, most notably that of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel. The film is fascinating and will have you questioning whose side right was on, the U.S. and Colombian governments or the cartels.
That’s what these films do. They take stories that you may have only heard of and give them a full telling that will make you think. If you haven’t watched any of the “30 for 30” films yet, check them out. You may never see ESPN show anything of such quality ever again.