There was a time, long before they declared themselves the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” that ESPN truly reigned. True enough, they still hold a near monopoly on sports media, dominating coverage, dominating narratives, dominating the very way America thinks about sports. In time, ESPN became a monster, too big for it’s own good. ESPN formerly stood atop the journalistic pantheon, setting the standard for how sports should be covered. But they devolved, moving away from the business of reporting and into the business of opinion.
In the glory days, ESPN’s prime time SportsCenter program, the summit for all pertinent sports news and information as well as quick and tidy highlight packages with pithy, witty narration, became the very stopping point for all sports fans. That show, the 11 p.m. show, the “Big Show,” anchored by Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, re-defined quality sports coverage. Patrick and Olbermann were quick, snarky and poignant. They weren’t TV personalities covering sports because they were good at being on TV. They were good journalists and genuine sports fans with a good feel for humor.
In time, Patrick and Olbermann left the network. Olbermann, as would become habit, didn’t just burn bridges, he doused them in gasoline and breathed fire on them until they ceased to exist. In an instant, one of ESPN’s biggest stars became Persona non grata in Bristol, Connecticut.
Thus, Olbermann’s career took a different direction. He made stops at MSNBC, Fox, MSNBC again and most recently, Current TV. He became the embodiment of liberal political coverage, anchoring his own show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. His voice, though rarely balanced, echoed the loudest. He feuded with Bill O’Reilly. He called out, daily, his own list of Worst Persons in the World. Much like ESPN, Olbermann started out as a journalist and wound up as an opinioncrat. It’s easy to point a finger and blame, but the bottom line is TV executives bow to ratings, TV executives sign pay checks and TV executives know that opinions make more money than the news. Olbermann, like virtually every other reporter of this era, merely followed suit.
Yet, his attitude and character, attributes which played a heavy hand in building his popularity, wound up getting him fired from Current TV (or so they claim) in March of this year. Since then, he’s mostly moved along in cruise control. He’s returned for a couple of roundtable appearances on Current TV. He’s done guest spots on MLB Network. As far as I can tell, he’s “unemployed.”
Considering the fallout with Current TV, it wouldn’t be surprising if Olbermann simply needed time. There is no better way to mend a reputation than time away. Yet, it’s been eight months. Olbermann is just 53 years old and though he’s likely got enough money to go quietly off into the sunset, the opportunity for redemption shouldn’t be ignored.
So then, what better place for Olbermann to earn redemption than the MLB Network? Olbermann is a well-documented baseball historian and fan. He’s appeared in Ken Burns’ Baseball. He’s frequently spotted at ballparks. Hell, he already even writes a regular blog for MLB.com. Recently, he’s appeared on the Network in a few different capacities, once to discuss the A.L. MVP on Clubhouse Confidential, once to co-host, with Brian Kenny, MLB’s new daily, morning Hot Stove program.
The fit is nearly seamless. Few (maybe only Bob Costas) can rival Olbermann’s encycolpedic knowledge of the game. Further, Olbermann’s bent, a card carrying SABR member, on the game serves the network, as they work to further infuse sabermetrics into their programming.
Olbermann’s skill as an anchor and knowledge of the game are hardly in question. The question would be, where does he fit? In-season, MLB’s coverage is saturated with MLB Tonight, running from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. The show rotates hosts and analysts operating as an up-to-the-minute news, opinion and analysis program. It’s hard, if not impossible, to envision Olbermann being a rolling host in that regard.
So where then, do you slot him? Why not give him his own, late night, baseball talking points show? If you’ve seen Olbermann on the network, he’s far more accessible, laid back and respectful. Even as he debated Trout vs. Cabrera, something he clearly has a strong stance on, he did so without being insulting to the “non-SABR” arguments. He presented his own, well-reasoned case and discussed, again respectfully, the mentality that led to Cabrera winning the MVP. The result was a more measured dosage of opinion, but opinion nonetheless.
So why then couldn’t that be morphed into a daily program that also features player, manager, executive, reporter and analyst interviews? Simply put, a less bombastic version of Countdown, but only about baseball? My hunch is that someone as talented as Olbermann could make it work… splendidly. The fear may be that a Network funded by the very subject they are covering may restrict actual good opinions. Perhaps, but so too are court jesters necessary. Olbermann has a sense for levity, surely he could find the ability to strike the right balance. After all, baseball is a game he loves dearly too. He has no interest in disgracing it, as he would with say, the Republican party.
There’s an opportunity here for the MLB Network to pioneer something legitimately groundbreaking. Professional athletes are appearing on radio (Olbermann’s good friend and former co-anchor Dan Patrick, for instance) and tv shows and giving candid interviews, regularly. Why not do more of that on your own network? I can only watch Justin Upton do so many post-game interviews before that formulaic exercise is worn. But what I don’t get to see enough of is that human side of Upton, what he endures on a daily basis, what it’s like to play for Kirk Gibson, what he thinks about the N.L. West in 2013, or whatever other good topics that could be devised.
There’s potential here for a marriage made in heaven. Olbermann is out of work and the MLB Network could use a defining “star.” Why not take a chance?