Media Matters

Time Capsules

How fast does time move? Catch what's on ESPN Classic from even less than a decade ago...

By 12.15.05

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In about 1984, I found myself in the offices of Bob Bagley, the head of the television and films division of Mark McCormack's IMG Group. McCormack had parlayed an initial promotional deal with Arnold Palmer into the biggest, most successful sports marketing business in the world. His 2003 BBC obit obit called him "the most influential man in sport."

You'll know TWI (Trans World International), the Bagley division of IMG, as the creators of NFL Films. I had been sent to Bob by my friend Peter Duchow, James Garner's producer-partner, who thought there might be some writing I could do for TWI.

In the course of a long, genial meeting, I suggested to Bob that it would be nice to have some sort of sports film outlet that would broadcast fabulous contests from the past. I cited Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game and Don Larson's perfect World Series pitching performance.

Bob rubbed his chin thoughtfully and remarked, "I don't know how you'd ever get the rights together." And there we dropped the subject.

A long time later, in 1997, ESPN acquired the Classic Sports Network, renamed it ESPN Classic, and a full-fledged enthusiasm was born for sports oldies. I figure the idea got started with a couple of entrepreneurs in Canada I heard about many years ago who bought up video tapes of NHL hockey games for pennies and broadcast them, at great commercial success and profit, to the sports-starved boonies in Alberta and Saskatchewan. "No one wants to watch old hockey games" was proved resoundingly wrong. Our own blog devoted a section of one day recently to discussing the ESPNC broadcast of the fights of Muhammad Ali.

THIS PAST WEEK, AS I'VE BEEN RECUPERATING from rotator cuff surgery, I've been watching my own sports classics, mainly tapes I've saved of final rounds of major golf tournaments or Ryder Cups. (I've got at least an equal amount of tennis from the '80s and '90s, too, but I can't play tennis any more, so I'm not as interested in those.) It's been an education.

For one thing, going back not all that far (the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills), you can see a fair number of people who are now dead: Broadcaster Dave Marr, caddies Jeff "Squeaky" Medlin and Bruce Edwards, and golfer Payne Stewart. For another, many companies, products, and landmarks are gone, too. The title sponsor of the 1997 PGA was Oldsmobile. Played at Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, New York, the coverage featured establishing shots from a blimp, often of the New York City skyline in the hazy distance: spike of the Empire State Building on the right, upright captain's bars of the World Trade Center on the left. See that, you always say, "Oh."

Ryder Cup teams customarily crossed the Atlantic on the Concord. On the way to Great Britain in 1993, Brad Faxon took out a putter and a ball and rolled a putt up the aisle, an estimated cumulative distance of 27 miles. He claimed "the longest putt ever hit."

In promos during the 1995 British Open, ABC Sports touted a later-in-the-day broadcast of the final of the Tour de France. Can four-time winner so and so make it five in a row? That four-timer was Frenchman Miguel Indurain, and he did win his fifth later that day. Four amateurs made the cut in that Open Championship, with hulking six foot eight Gordon Sherry besting all his peers. Nineteen-year-old Tiger Woods was shown twice, from a great distance, driving over the green on the eighteenth hole and, moments later, missing a birdie putt.

John Daly won that tournament with a bleach blond haircut he no longer has, a wife he no longer has, a Wilson driver with a funny football shaped face he no longer has, in an ugly baggy green Reebok pullover I hope he no longer has.

I HAVE ONE ADVANTAGE over ESPN Classic. I can actually watch the commercials from back then, too, advertising pitches that use imagery and ideas that simply do not fit with our time today. Shell ran ads featuring animated soul dancing gas pumps and cars. And a Cadillac spot featuring two worried-looking women d'un certain age preserves as though in amber the trophy wife worries of the time:

He says he needs more space.

Oh.

And he wants more power.

Oh!

(Smile breaks through.) He wants a Cadillac DeVille.

I'LL BRING THESE OBSERVATIONS back to golf. Because some big things have happened in only ten years, and it has been well worth the look back.

Golfers no longer worry much about spike marks on the greens. In the rules of golf, a player may repair a mark on the green made by a ball, but not the little tufts and tears made by the spikes on golf shoes. At the 1994 PGA, played at a blazing hot Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, spike marks defaced the greens like a scattering of jacks. And those marks deflect putts. So why no more? The advent of plastic spikes, or "soft spikes." Even in the pro ranks, where a few die-hards still wear the old steel nails, most players have gone over to the plastic spikes for superior comfort and, in recent years, traction the equal of steel spikes. A consumer can no longer buy steel spikes except by special order. I don't think I've ever seen a product take over a market so fast.

Golf balls no longer specify a "compression." This rating used to be either 90 or 100 (90 or 100 what, I never figured out). Modern golf balls are no longer wound (you can't unravel one the way you used to be able to). Their compression, if such a thing were printed, would probably be in the 60-70 range. Nowadays, manufacturers tout "soft" balls for their better feel. Used to be you were thought a sissy for playing a soft ball. No more, not with ball makers naming their products "The Noodle" and touting "butter soft feel."

Southern Hills isn't all that long a course, and, in the 1994 final round I preserved, there wasn't much wind. Nonetheless, players were regularly hitting five- and six-irons (or more) to par-four greens, from distances of 185 yards or more. On one hole, I marveled at Greg Norman hitting a nine-iron from about 125 yards. Today, players hit pitching wedges up to 150 yards, with a nine-iron being the basic 150-yard club. Norman's shot would be a strong sand wedge for today's players. And Nick Price, who won that tournament, led the field with a driving average of 303 yards for the week. Today's major tournament winner will probably exceed that average by 20 yards.

FINALLY, SPORTS ANNOUNCERS and their producers suffer from a near-terminal lack of reporting zeal. I don't think they have to go digging after dirt in players' personal lives. But they really should report on the games properly.

Here's a for instance: In tennis, Michael Chang changed his service motion more than any other player over several years. He changed from "platform" serving, with both feet planted, to "step forward" serving, and then back again. He adopted a Boris Becker-ish deep knee bend, then dropped it. He switched from landing, after his service leap, on his left foot to landing on his right foot. How often did I see a video feature describing these changes? Never. "Michael's been working on his serve," is as far as tennis announcers ever went.

In golf, Tiger Woods' switch from instructor Butch Harmon to Hank Haney has been widely noted. But no network has devoted their ample video resources to the changes Tiger has actually made. He's far more a body swinger than an arm swinger nowadays, for one. He has largely eliminated the hand-over-hand "release" at contact point. He rehearses a no-release swing regularly on every tee, never remarked. His swing is flatter than it used to be. He stands a bit farther from the ball, he appears to have weakened his grip somewhat, and I would bet that he uses slightly longer shafts in his irons.

How about it, guys? Dig a little, and become better broadcasters. The players have changed, the game has changed, the sponsors have changed. But we haven't seen anything new in sports broadcasting since Roone Arledge's breakthroughs of the 1970s.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.