I, like many, would like to see hockey return to ESPN. It provides the widest exposure of sports programming in the US.
With that said, ESPN also provides the widest exposure of what I consider to be the biggest problem with sports programming today: the epidemic of sportscasting "personalities" overshadowing the events they present.
The seeds of this issue can be traced back to the infancy of "Monday Night Football," when Howard Cosell was as much (if not more) of a draw as the game itself. Cosell, however, was a well-spoken, intelligent commentator with a firm grasp of his subject matter. What has happened since is the growth of a culture where the medium is the message.
In the early days of ESPN, anchors like Tom Mees delivered the information from the sports world with clarity and authority. The channel (not even really a network, yet) served as a one-stop repository for scores and news on all sports. What's happened since has been the birth and growth of a monster. In addition to reporting, there came commentary. There came in-depth interviews and shows. Then, there came the cult of personality.
Through no real fault of his own, the father of the shift from "sportscaster" to "sports personality" was Chris Berman. When the addition of player nicknames to highlights was new, it made the routine recap of the days happenings a little more fun to watch. It didn't take long for them to gain a nickname of their own: Bermanisms. From there, it seemed a light bulb went off for ESPN--or, at least, for other members of its on-air staff--that spicing things up was the way to go. Next thing you know, sports fans everywhere could tune into SportsCenter for, among other catchy turns of phrase, their daily Spanish lesson (en fuego!).
As ESPN grew into a network--in fact, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports--rerunning SportsCenter to fill 24 hours of programming wasn't enough. It began to develop its own programming, giving its "stars" platforms to put their own spin on the happenings in sports. And so, the spotlight began to shift off of the games and onto the commentators. The epitome of this shift, to me, is "Pardon the Interruption," in which small (sometimes tiny) portions of time are alloted to seemingly every conceivable topic, just so the viewer can get a broad array of wisdom from the commentators. (Personally, I don't think there's any excuse for the fact that I even know the name Tony Kornheiser, let alone the fact that he's also now considered a best-selling author.)
The pinnacle of ESPN's climb of self-importance is its very own ESPY awards--essentially an event manufactured for the network to aggrandize itself and show off just how hip and important what they do is. The channel that was born to report on sports now feels itself to be the arbiter of what constitutes the best in sports.
The technical and marketing expertise of ESPN in presenting sporting events and information is second-to-none (in the US, at least). Unfortunately, that's also translated into the network's anchors and reporters, as well as others (eg, the insufferable Jim Rome or Screamin' A Smith) to consider themselves as the stars of the show.
Next time... the BIG reason hockey isn't popular in the US.