King Kaufman's Sports Daily

New ESPN hire Rush Limbaugh will bring the same level of insight to football that he brings to politics. In other words, the real fans get screwed again.

By Salon Staff
Published July 15, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

"My friends, I don't know how much more simply I can put this. There are not more injuries in games played on artificial turf than there are in games played on grass. That's something the environmental wackos want you to believe."

I'm just trying to picture Rush Limbaugh in his new role as a commentator on "Sunday NFL Countdown," ESPN's pregame football studio show. The network announced Monday that the right-wing talk titan will make his debut before the season-opening Jets-Redskins game on Sept. 4.

"These alarmists and prophets of doom want you to think they're looking out for the welfare of the players. But their real agenda has nothing to do with players. Their real agenda, my friends -- their real agenda -- is fighting capitalism."

Limbaugh will deliver a short commentary each week, and then he'll have three chances to "challenge" something that someone else is saying, to throw the red flag, as it were, like an NFL coach challenging an official's call. Limbaugh says he'll be there to represent the fan's point of view.

"I am not a quote unquote sports journalist," he said on a conference call Monday, and I should point out that starting with this paragraph, the quotes in this story are real. "I'm not running around reporting events. I'm watching it just like the fans do ... For the most part I'm simply going to bring the perspective of the guy watching."

What's funny about that is that "the guy watching" is the guy who gets screwed by moves like ESPN's hiring of Rush Limbaugh. Because ESPN doesn't care about the guy watching. The guy, or gal, ESPN is interested in is the one who isn't watching, but might. ESPN wants him or her to watch. That's why TV networks, like every other sporting enterprise, spend so much time catering to nonfans.

They know the hardcore fans are going to tune in, or show up, or buy the merchandise, no matter what. So they focus on people who have to be drawn in. The effect is that in the sports business, the best customers are routinely subjected to shoddy treatment. They are never catered to.

"The hope is that the loyalists are willing to accept it," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "I mean, they complain about it, they tend to scoff at the notion of Rush Limbaugh sitting on a one-hour TV show on ESPN using his three lifelines. But because of [their] long-term loyalty, there's just sort of that built-in factor that just simply can't be eroded away by making these sorts of decisions."

Limbaugh was passed over for a similar hire a few years ago when Dennis Miller joined ABC's "Monday Night Football." Miller, who was as bad a football broadcaster as Curt Gowdy would be a stand-up comic, was one in a long line of attempts to lure nonfans in ways that piss off hardcore fans: sideline reporters, endless halftime shows featuring children of all nations twirling ribbons to French horn music, irritating comedians making unfunny jokes on pregame shows.

I've long wondered why the same phenomenon doesn't happen at the other end of the spectrum. Why don't the networks try to draw in nonfans of figure skating by having Adam Carolla come on and talk about beer and girls and farting?

"At the end of the day it's still the core product that sustains people's interest. You can sell the sizzle, but you have to sell the steak eventually," Swangard says. "The XFL was a great example of something that was really trying to reach down into that core fan base of football that was hardcore male, with the cheerleaders and all the other stuff. And what came to pass was a football product that wasn't all that good."

The NFL's basic product is pretty good. It's very good, in fact. But it seems that all the best customers ever get is more sizzle from the TV networks that show it.

"I don't doubt that I'm going to say things that people who consider themselves hardcore, and know more than anybody else about it, are going to consider me an idiot," Limbaugh said Monday. "I have to earn the relevancy, and that's something I fully intend to do."

I wouldn't count on it. Even though I've never heard Limbaugh utter a sentence I've agreed with, I think he's a genius of radio. He's a wonderful entertainer, a virtuoso of the medium rivaled only, to these ears, by Vin Scully and Howard Stern. But serious political thinkers on either side of the aisle don't put much stock in what he has to say. He's important for the huge audience he speaks to, but he's basically a clown.

He'll play the same role in football. He's a better demographic fit than the overly intellectual and vaguely effete Miller was, but he's really nothing more than a shiny object designed to attract people who don't really care much about the sport.

"I think football's a lot like life," Limbaugh said Monday. "I think I know life pretty well." I would argue that, like much of what he says, both of these statements are demonstrably false. Football is nothing like life. It's organized and neat and rational. Everyone is either with you or against you and the boundaries are straight lines that are clearly marked. That is indeed how Limbaugh views life, and he's wrong.

The only sport that's like life is bullfighting, and only for the bull.

And speaking of bull, there are surely more Limbaugh observations where that one came from. Unfortunately for real football fans who might tune in to ESPN looking for real insights into the action on the field, he'll be delivering them every Sunday this fall.

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