Who's Now: two words that send a chill up the spine of many a sports fan.
Summertime brings with it a lull in the sports calendar, but the 24/7 sports #content machine does not relent with the conclusion of the NBA Finals. As the flagship of the sports media fleet, ESPN has attempted various gimmicks to fill the void of meaningful competition, but none more grating than Who's Now.
For those unfamiliar with the series that dominated Sportscenter, let’s rewind to Summer 2007. The sports blogosphere was somewhat virgin territory, not yet infiltrated by wannabe Silicon Valley iconoclasts. The egomaniac editorial overlords of today were then equals with the lowly upstarts, and ESPN was the monolith against which the newcomers rebelled.
Some of the criticism launched at ESPN was misguided, but it was mostly born of frustration. Bloggers were fundamentally sports fans, all of whom grew up with ESPN as a staple of their media diet, and Sportscenter was the main course.
ESPN dabbled in various silliness in the early 2000s, like the abortive ESPN Hollywood, hosted by DAT NO-GOOD JABRONI MARIO LOPEZ. AAAAK-PATOOO!
And, while various Sportscenter anchor seemingly turned the show into a platform to launch entertainment careers — this was at a time when Craig Kilborn hosted the Late Late Show and appeared in Old School, after all — ESPN’s mantle-piece went largely unchanged.
Who’s Now irrevocably damaged that. As former ESPN ombudswoman Le Anne Schreiber described in a letter from one viewer, Who's Now was “a sports addict’s Lourdes.”
ESPN The Magazine ran a series entitled “Who’s Next,” designed to showcase up-and-coming stars across various sports. The “Next” concept was perfectly reasonable; Who’s Now was not. “Now” was a made-up concept, designed solely to shoehorn celebrity involvement into a program initially targeted at sports fan.
“Now” is the kind of empty buzzword I picture an out-of-touch executive insisting upon some poor writer in a pitch meeting.
Who's Now arbitrarily measured the competitive success of 32 athletes, juxtaposed with their mainstream image. The gimmick functioned as an appeal to casual fans, with little regard for the devotees who propped up Sportscenter.
The field was bereft of college football stars. Tebowmania was running wild on the blogosphere, largely the result of one photo. However, ESPN wouldn’t latch onto the Florida quarterback for another few months.
Vince Young and Reggie Bush were the closest Who's Now came to featuring any college athletes. The two were 17 months removed from facing in arguably the greatest college football game ever played.
Various celebrities appeared as panelists to give their take on what constituted Now-ness, including Adam Sandler and Kevin James.
The two living manifestations of a fart joke used the platform to cross-promote the abysmal I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a typical PG-13 Sandler vehicle that featured Rob Schneider in a caricature so racist, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was probably saying, “Whoa, don’t you think that’s a little problematic?”
Cross-promotion was nothing new on the Worldwide Leader, and continues today. That bit of inanity isn’t what made Who’s Now so loathsome, but rather the time dedicated to and importance placed on Who's Now.
The online fan vote — which Tiger Woods won, two years prior to his fall from grace — was discussed throughout ESPN properties like a Final Four; nay, a Rose Bowl; no, a Super Bowl.
No hyperbole, Who’s Now was treated with the same gravity of a world championship. And it was inescapable.
Now, you may read the above line and ask, Why not just turn off the TV? Perfectly reasonable. As referenced in the ombudswoman’s piece above, plenty of longtime Sportscenter viewers did just that.
I would have, had I not been a web editor for CBS Sports that summer, where office TVs were constantly tuned into ESPN. I suffered trauma that summer, with long-term effects I can only imagine compare to those of huffing spray paint from a paper bag.
As for reaching that all-important casual demographic, Who's Now dying a merciful death after that initial run suggests it failed in its intended purpose. All it accomplished was alienating its true target audience.
If anything positive can be said or written of Who's Now, however, it’s that it isn’t Speak For Yourself.