UW Health Sports Medicine 

'The Voice' with Matt Lepay

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAs Hall of Fame-caliber sportscaster Bob Costas has noted, the sports television industry has evolved from an eavesdropper to something much larger.

As an example, he cites the wonderful 1976 season of Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych  He was a national sensation not just for being good, but also for being extremely animated on the mound.  He would talk to the baseball. He would sprint to his shortstop and congratulate him on making a nice defensive play. Simply put, he did things one normally did not see on a baseball field.

Costas is of the belief that Fidrych would act that way regardless of whether the game was televised.  Remember this is 1976, and many games were not on TV, so it is hard to argue with Costas' opinion.

Today we see athletes put on a show, and it is difficult to believe it is anything other than an attention-seeking, "Hey, look at me!" moment designed specifically for the TV audience. Those moments can happen on the playing field, or on so-called reality programs, such as "Hard Knocks," "The T.O. Show," or  the ever-popular "Ochocinco:  The Ultimate Catch."

(Confession:  I enjoy "Hard Knocks," but have zero interest in the other two shows, even though I am a Bengals fan).

This summer, a certain NBA player may have trumped all others with his own infomercial called "The Decision." In a very short period of time, LeBron James went from a terrific, respected and very popular athlete to perhaps the league's most polarizing figure.

"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach" created strong reactions, even from those who have little interest in the NBA. Many were disgusted by what they perceived as just another example of how professional athletes are some of the world's most self-centered human beings.

We rant about LeBron. We say we are tired of seeing a wide receiver give a first-down signal after catching a pass in the fourth quarter, when that player's team is trailing by 21 points. We talk about being turned off by a home run hitter who stands in the box to admire his latest blast.

But guess what?  We watch.

Media outlets across the country blasted ESPN for carrying James' big announcement, yet other than an NFL-related program, "The Decision" is the highest-rated show on that network so far this year.

Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco are very gifted players, but both have the reputation of being headaches for teammates and coaches. True as that might be, both have TV shows, which must mean there is a market for these types of characters.

"Hard Knocks" does a wonderful job of taking a football fan inside the training camp atmosphere of an NFL team, but would New York Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum really be talking out loud, while driving back to camp, about the contract negotiations with disgruntled cornerback Darrelle Revis if there was NO camera in the vehicle?

Maybe, but something tells me TV doesn't eavesdrop quite like it did in 1976.

Somewhere along the way, the game itself stopped being enough for us. As much as we might deny it, we like the soap opera element that goes with it. The diva wide receiver. The superstar who is about to become a free agent. The team official who is good quote. We watch and we listen for the next outrageous act or comment from those figures.

It is easy to blame ESPN for bowing to LeBron's wishes. It is just as easy to blame any network for giving so much face time to an athlete who likes to showboat.

Go ahead and pass the buck, but remember a goal of sports television is to attract as many viewers as possible, and if a network believes the masses want a little extra drama -- even if it is manufactured solely for the entertainment of the viewing audience -- then extra drama we will get.