I was listening to a Will Leitch / Sports Media Journal podcast the other day; it's a pretty good piece, though a little bit fractious at the close. Will's pimping his new book, and during the conversation, he compared the sports fans relationship to ESPN to the Christian Right's relationship with the Republican Party -- in that the parent organization will irritate and/or confound the base, but at the end of the day, the base won't leave, because there is no other game in town.
I see his point, but the analogy fails for one reason. Politically, when the other side wins as a result of your side becoming fragmented, your side suffers, and you blame yourself for it. (See Nader 2000 voters, or at least, any of them who aren't basically nihilists.) With sports, if you start going elsewhere for your news, ESPN doesn't go away. At least, not for a very long time.
The bigger issue is whether or not ESPN has really gotten worse, or if the audience that grew up with ESPN is now growing old and embittered. ESPN, being a media machine, won't care very much, because the prime purchasing demographic is 18 to 35 year old folks. Once you are past a certain age, you become more or less irrelevant and superfluous to the ad machines that fuels all of this stuff. (This is one of the reasons why Fox News isn't nearly the money maker that their raw numbers says they should be, and why newspapers are losing ground fast to online. But I digress.)
I think there is a market for an edgy, youth-oriented and yet smarter competitor to ESPN; right now, the Lemur's idea of edgy is the Stu Scott Wandering Eye Minstrel Show, or letting Leatherman Berman go off his meds to make even older and more embarrassing pop references. (Seriously, the only "Hogan's Heroes" reference that should be made involves Bob Crane's freaky death. Everything else just makes me think you just got color television.)
But Youth inevitably equates to Dumb in network land, and there's two big problems with the approach:
1) No one has proven that hardcore sports fan is actually attracting the money demographic in the way that it used to. Frankly, if I were doing media buying to reach that group, I'd be moving heaven and earth to get signage inside video games. Your display ads should be in Wii games for mass market stuff now, and in the upcoming Grand Theft Auto game for the edgy teen / young adult stuff. But media buyers are really good at continuing to buy the same stuff they've always bought, which is one of the reasons why the Super Bowl sells out in a heartbeat...
2) If a competitor actually starts to make headway on the Lemur with a new show that has the same appeal of the '90s Olbermann/Patrick Big Show... the Lemur will take note, scratch its chin thoughtfully, and write a check to any and all revolutionaries. End of insurrection (though maybe the Lemur would become watchable again, at least for a little while).
So to get to the point of having any kind of meaningful competition, you'd need a deep-pocketed competitor that thinks the demographic is worth losing money hand over fist to for at leas t3 to 5 years, who will take a leap of faith that younger audiences are smarter than they are usually given credit for.
Or who will somehow change the media paradigm to make older viewers attractive to advertisers, and then make a show that calls to mind what it was that we all used to like about the Lemur. You know, kind of like what we all used to like about Simmons.
(Damn, I think I just depressed myself, too.)