- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

The world of sports can’t be accused of being stale. Most recently, sports broadcasters have been the most aggressive, offering new channels, new innovations and new business ventures. There’s the NFL Network and regional sports channels like the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. The Mountain West Conference and Big Ten have formed their own channels, and companies like ESPN are increasingly putting sports on the Internet, mobile phones and iPods.

Chances are, many of these ventures eventually will make a lot of people a lot of money. But if history is an accurate guide, at least a few of these new ventures will turn into epic failures. Some even will be anointed among the worst ideas in pop culture history. In the spirit of schadenfreude, let’s take a look at some of the worst sports broadcasting failures in history.

A bad, bad, bad idea

As the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona approached, NBC was facing a dilemma. There were too many events and not enough hours in the network’s coverage window. Furthermore, fans were growing frustrated with networks’ inability to show events live rather than on tape delay in prime-time.

To address these concerns, NBC partnered with New York-based Cablevision to create the three-tiered, steaming pile of failure known as the Olympic Triplecast. The network believed that by creating three pay-per-view channels, Olympic fans would be willing to pay upward of $125 to get about 1,000 hours worth of handball, diving and badminton. NBC projected as many as 3 million subscribers; it got fewer than 200,000.

“They must have been hit by sunspots when they dreamed that up,” one ad executive told USA Today at the time. “There aren’t enough sports bars in America to make that work.”

NBC and Cablevision lost about $100 million on the deal, and to make matters worse, the network ticked off some advertisers by promoting the commercial-free pay service instead of its traditional network coverage.

It can be argued, however, that the Triplecast — or at least the concept of pay-per-view sports — was ahead of its time. Two years later, the NFL introduced the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package, believing that fans would pay to see out-of-market football games each Sunday. Earlier this year, DirecTV paid upward of $700 million for the exclusive rights to the package. Similar packages like Major League Baseball Extra Innings and NBA League Pass also have proved successful.

Gridiron grotesqueness

Football was popular. Professional wrestling was popular. But the combination of the two was a nightmare for nearly everyone involved.

In February 2001, NBC and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation launched the XFL, a new football league designed to make the NFL look like ballroom dancing. There were eight teams with names like the Las Vegas Outlaws, New York/New Jersey Hitmen and Chicago Enforcers. There were wacky rules, such as no fair catches on punts or kickoffs and no penalties for roughing the passer. The cheerleaders wore less clothing than most adult film actresses, and the broadcasts were filled with trash-talking, in-your-face announcers, including former WWF star Jesse Ventura, then the governor of Minnesota. Even the players got a little crazy, sporting odd nicknames on the backs of their jerseys, none more notable than Outlaws running back Rod Smart, aka “He Hate Me.”

NBC marketed the league as a return to “old-time smashmouth football,” apparently oblivious to the fact the NFL grew in popularity over the years as passing and scoring increased.

Ratings for the games started off decently but plummeted quickly after fans realized the quality of play was horrific. The mainstream media never bought in, the over-the-top production turned off additional viewers and by season’s end the games were rating worse than late night reruns of “Maude.” By the time the Los Angeles Xtreme defeated the San Francisco Demons in the championship “Million Dollar Game,” people stopped caring altogether.

While the league spawned a few NFL players, including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, NBC and the WWF realized the XFL was a failed venture before a second season could get under way. The two sides split the financial loss, which totaled more than $70 million.

“I’m certain that this’ll be a Harvard Business School study,” NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol said, when announcing the collapse of the league.

On the bright side, several broadcast innovations introduced by the XFL have since become commonplace. The so-called “SkyCam” and the attaching of microphones to players and coaches is now a standard of many NFL and college football broadcasts.

The ‘abomination’

It still irks fans, even a decade later.

In 1994, Major League Baseball teamed up with ABC and NBC to form the Baseball Network, a joint venture under which the league produced many of the game broadcasts for the networks and shared the advertising revenue. It was a new unique model that guarantee the league would get more money as the game grew in popularity.

Buzz over the venture settled, however, when major league players went on strike, ending the season in August. The network then returned in 1995 but inexplicably continued with a regional model for airing the games. The network chose to broadcast several games at once but aired none nationally.

Furthermore, most fans were permitted to see just one game a night, even in places like New York and Chicago, which have two teams. The league also blacked out all local telecasts in favor of its own and insisted games start at 8 p.m.

With baseball’s labor situation in flux, both ABC and NBC agreed to back out of the venture by mid-1995, though they agreed to share the responsibility of airing the World Series. In all, the venture lost nearly $100 million in advertising after spending nearly $500 million.

In his 2000 book “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case For Baseball,” NBC broadcaster Bob Costas referred to the Baseball Network as “stupid and an abomination.”

You will hear no arguments from fans on that point, Bob.

No thanks, Trey

Somehow, the idea of dumping a mobile phone plan for a costlier one just to get highlights of Albert Pujols didn’t catch on with people.

On Super Bowl Sunday earlier this year, ESPN formally introduced a new mobile phone service providing video highlights, game clips and other exclusive sports content. The Mobile ESPN service was generally viewed as a technological success, but ESPN made one big blunder: To get the service, users had to purchase a costly new phone and sign up for an entirely new, more expensive phone plan. Phones initially cost as much as $400, and wireless plans climbed above $60 a month.

With most mobile phone users already locked into contracts with their existing providers — and with plenty of sports content already available through other wireless subscriptions — customers weren’t buying in. Analysts reported that the company projected 240,000 subscribers but had landed just 10,000 by mid-year. By June, influential analysts from Merrill Lynch pleaded with ESPN parent company Disney to “cut the cord” on Mobile ESPN.

ESPN responded by lowering prices and aggressively marketing the service with the help of “SportsCenter” anchor Trey Wingo. ESPN discontinued the service in September. The company lost a reported $135 million on the venture. Mobile ESPN is expected to return as an add-on subscription with existing phone services, which is what most analysts agreed it should have been to begin with.

Hockey’s comet

In 1996, Fox was in the middle of its contract to broadcast the NHL and tried to address a common complaint among casual hockey fans: It’s too hard to follow the puck on television.

It must have gotten some advice from Super Mario.

At that year’s All-Star Game, the network unveiled “FoxTrax,” a special puck implanted with infrared transmitters and motion detectors that appeared on television with a blue glow. When traveling faster than 70 mph, the puck gave off a red comet-like tail.

While casual fans generally didn’t mind the glowing puck — about 70 percent of the respondents of one survey liked it — hockey purists were outraged, crying out that Fox was turning hockey into a video game. For many Canadians, it became a symbol of the wide chasm in sports attitudes between Canada and the United States, and the glowing puck was mocked on Canadian television. In 1998, Fox handed over coverage of the NHL to ABC, and FoxTrax never returned. But is it gone for good?

“It was laughed at, dubbed the New Coke of Fox Sports,” Fox Sports chairman David Hill told USA Weekend magazine in 2004. “I offer no apologies. On TV, I reasoned, you can’t follow the bloody puck! We had to do something about that. And I’ll let you in on a secret: If we get the broadcast rights to hockey again, we’ll bring that glowing blue puck back.”

And how’s this for irony? The creator of the glowing puck went on to invent the yellow “first down” line that is now considered an essential part of any live football broadcast.

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