In the ESPN zone Combining sports fanaticism with a hipper-than-thou attitude has made the cable channel a cultural force.

Popular Culture

July 19, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN COLUMNIST

Maybe Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro was able to offer "Misery" star Kathy Bates a few tips for the next time she has to swing a sledgehammer. Perhaps basketball star Mike Bibby and "Pulp Fiction" hit man Samuel L. Jackson chatted about shooting techniques.

These and other celebrities converged on the Inner Harbor last weekend for the unveiling of a new restaurant, and it wasn't Planet Hollywood. What other force in the show-biz universe could have aligned such stars? ESPN, of course.

It's been seven years since former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent dismissed the country's first all-sports cable channel as the home of "tractor pulls and billiard matches." To be sure, ESPN is still televising both. But with savvy programming and marketing - not to mention the fiscal and spiritual backing of its corporate parent, Walt Disney Co. - ESPN has become the million-pound gorilla of American sports, and the rest of the American cultural front is looking like so many uneaten bananas.

"Our business, and, in a way, sports itself has grown," says Chris Berman, ESPN's most visible on-air personality. "It's been geometrical, rather than arithmetical. We like to think we've kept up and maybe helped script that growth."

That's a pretty fair assumption on the part of Berman, who has been at ESPN since the founding days 19 years ago when the Connecticut-based cable channel existed on the fringe of consciousness, even among hard-core sports fans.

But now, thanks to four 24-hour-per-day, seven-day-a week domestic television channels, international outlets, a radio network, a magazine, CDs and CD-ROMs, videos and now a restaurant - Baltimore's newly opened ESPN Zone - ESPN has moved from cultural backwater to the cutting edge.

"I've said this for years, that at our network we don't have viewers, we have fans," says Bob Ley, Berman's fellow ESPN "lifer." "There's an absolute different level of empathy between our viewers, our fans, and those at the network level."

ESPN's operation is fueled by the basic hero worship that is at the core of sports fandom. Like an oil refinery, ESPN - from "SportsCenter," its signature three-times-a-day sports-news show, to coverage of virtually every sport known to man (including some it has created) - pumps out both the athletes we follow and the statistics that define them.

Its success has inspired imitation across the airwaves. Fox, for instance, has a bunch of regional ESPN pretenders that it has strung together into a network, and CNN and Sports Illustrated have merged their resources into CNN-SI, an all-sports-news, all-the-time outlet.

But ESPN has managed to remain ahead of the pack primarily by reshaping sports as entertainment and repackaging the athletes who participate and the announcers who present them as performers.

"I still believe we have the formula, and it's as if people are still trying to get that formula," says "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick. "They hire our people to get that formula, but it can't be done overnight. We have a great head start."

ESPN has made its mark in two main ways: by giving us access to the athletes we love and by providing a certain attitude, one that says it's cool to be a sports nut, so long as you don't completely lose your ironic detachment.

Its on-air personnel deliver insouciance like no one else. Patrick and former "SportsCenter" partner Keith Olbermann were the hipper-than-thou anchor team that was smarter than you and unafraid to show it. Berman, who is host of the baseball and football highlights shows, and rabid college-basketball analyst Dick Vitale are the "hip to be square" pair so geeked about sports that they come across as cool.

The anchors' catch phrases - from Patrick's "En fuego!" to Stuart Scott's "cooler than the other side of the pillow - have leaped out of the television and become part of playground lingo.

In a bit of postmodern propagandizing, the coda to the ubiquitous "SportsCenter" theme song - Da-da-da, da-da-da! - echoes through just about every arena and stadium, where fans carry signs that read " 'SportsCenter' is next!" in hopes of earning their 15 seconds of television exposure.

The ESPN attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the channel's tongue-in-cheek promotional spots, in which exalted athletes like basketball star Grant Hill and pitcher Roger Clemens rush to the small Connecticut town where the company is headquartered to film promos with the "SportsCenter" anchors.

The ESPN feel is even creeping into other types of programming. When Olbermann and fellow anchor Craig Kilborn got too hip for the room, they took off for greener, less jock-oriented pastures: Olbermann to his own public affairs show on MSNBC and Kilborn to a faux newscast on Comedy Central (he is scheduled to take over Tom Snyder's CBS late night show). Both are still doing their "SportsCenter" shtick, only with Monica Lewinsky rather than Dennis Rodman as their subject matter.

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