originally published November 29, 2013
My American readers are no doubt burping through the last of their tryptophan intake from last night, or else slipping on their spiked cleats so they can better trample over their fellow Walmart shoppers in search of the Greatest Deal Ever. My Canadian readers are scowling in their cubicles, wondering why none of our holidays merit a four-day weekend. Either way, it’s a good day to talk about sports.
The NBA and NHL seasons are in full swing, and teams in the National Football League are prepping for the frantic shoving match that will lead twelve teams to the playoffs at the end of next month. NASCAR racers are tuning up their rides and practicing turning left for next year’s season, while baseball players are the fortunate spectators. There’s college sports, an upcoming Olympics and probably something going on in the fencing world. Those fencing bastards are always doing something.
Of course, you won’t see fencing on TV – even during the Olympics you have to be lucky to find a match amongst all the basketball, swimming and beach volleyball on NBC. But what interests me today are not the sports we’ll be gazing vacantly at this weekend, but the atrocities in televised sport that have befallen our culture in the past. I’ll start with the most offensive.
Hockey has always been the neglected child in American televised sport. Practically a religion in Canada, it has taken years for the sport to spread its infectiousness into some of the warmer-climate markets in the U.S. The Fox Network, which in the mid-90s was dealing with its own struggles for legitimacy, picked up a contract to air a number of NHL games. After doing some market research (presumably among the unrepentantly insane), they sliced open the puck and stuck a circuit board inside. Now people could see the puck glow on TV, with CGI blue streaks appearing when the puck was passed, red for a mighty shot.
Newcomers to the sport appreciated the enhancement. But for those who had been watching hockey for years – which is practically every sentient being in Canada, including dust mites – it was an abomination. A black puck on white ice really isn’t that hard to follow. Fox’s NHL ratings dipped after the FoxTrax Puck was introduced during the 1996 All-Star Game, and by the end of the 1998 finals they dropped the sport from their broadcast lineup.
Hockey on American prime-time wouldn’t see their ratings climb back from this fiasco until 2008 when the Winter Classic debuted.
WWE head honcho Vince McMahon had a great idea. What if there was a football league that tweaked the rules, creating a faster, harder-hitting, more violent game? It was a merger of wrestling and football – how could it lose? Welcome to the XFL.
NBC was equally to blame for this mess as part owners – and the league was truly owned from on high. All teams were run as branches of the same corporation, not by individual owners. There were no fair-catches on punted balls, all stadiums required actual grass, and defenders could bump receivers any time before the quarterback threw the ball. It might have been interesting if it wasn’t so awful.
The problem was, the really good players were making real money in the NFL. Also, there was extremely limited fan support, possibly because many of the cities involved already had pro teams. Other media outlets hesitated to report on the games, feeling it was more a WWE-type show than an actual competitive league. Both the WWE and NBC lost $35 million each in one season. They didn’t come back for seconds.
In 1994, ABC and NBC joined forces to launch The Baseball Network. Specialty cable stations have since blown their broadcasting wad all over the channel spectrum, but back then it was harder to launch a fresh channel. The Baseball Network wasn’t technically a channel though; they produced their own games, which were then broadcast on ABC and NBC. It was a disaster, and not only because Major League Baseball spent much of the 1994 season locked out due to strike.
Baseball Night In America had a lock of exclusivity over every market, so if they were showing the Yankees game and you, a New Yorker, wanted to see the Mets, you were out of luck. They chose their games to air, and they weren’t always the ones crucial to a pennant race. If your team was playing in a different time zone and the start time didn’t mesh with the broadcast schedule, you wouldn’t see it.
All in all, this may be one of the most ill-conceived business ideas in the history of broadcast television. Luckily the outcry was loud enough that the Baseball Network disappeared after the 1995 season.
NBC lost their NFL broadcast rights in 1998 to CBS. They were desperate for some of that sweet football money, which is what led to the XFL fiasco in 2001. In 2003 they tried again with the Arena Football League, which had been around since 1987. They shifted the season from May to February, hoping to cash in on fans’ initial post-Super-Bowl football withdrawal symptoms. But they focussed mainly on large-market teams, leaving smaller-city clubs like the Grand Rapids Rampage or San Jose Sabercats without any national visibility.
Also, the ratings were crap. After a couple of seasons, NBC stopped promoting the games – it was like they were airing them out of contractual necessity. In 2006, ESPN bought out part of the league and the broadcasts shifted their way. This didn’t help – the league cancelled its 2009 season due to financial hemorrhaging. Either this one wasn’t entirely NBC’s fault or their broadcast strategy was a mortal stab in arena football’s gut.
In 2002, Fox was struck by the wiggly blue lightning of pure inspiration. Celebrity boxing. Who wouldn’t want to see Danny Partridge duke it out with Greg Brady? Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis? Are you talkin’ ‘bout punching Vanilla Ice in the face? Well good news, that’ll happen too. How about Paula Jones, the lady who sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment? Let’s throw her in the ring with Tonya Harding.
If you think this sounds like the worst idea ever, you’d be right. Naturally there was a sequel. Darva Conger, who “won” the ridiculous Fox reality show Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, fought against Olga Korbut, a former Belarusian gymnast who had been arrested for shoplifting $19 worth of groceries just four months earlier. Screech from Saved By The Bell fought Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter. 7-foot-7 basketballer Manute Bol fought William “The Refrigerator” Perry. And for some reason I can’t even fathom, Joey Buttafuoco, the guy who became famous when his 16-year-old girlfriend shot his wife in the head, fought female wrestler Chyna. “Weird Al” Yankovic had turned down that fight, not wanting to box against a woman.
John Wayne Bobbitt (the man famous for having been de-wanged by his wife) was also slated for that fight, but organizers felt that it wasn’t a good idea after Bobbitt was charged with spousal abuse.
Fox not only garnered a massive heap of criticism for these two episodes, but they also demonstrated to the world their extremely flimsy grasp on the definition of the word ‘celebrity’.
That said, if any of these monstrosities is going to stage a comeback, it’ll probably be this one.