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Who started the sports 'hype' game?

August 24, 2011

PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler does not contribute to the hype game that exists all over the sports world.

PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler got me thinking the other day when he was asked about the “hype” surrounding new third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who at the time had gone 0-for-11 in his first three games for Pawtucket after hitting .302 for Class AA Portland with 18 home runs.
“You guys (the media) had all the expectations,” Beyeler said. “We just got a guy that’s coming up here and putting a few at-bats together late in the year and trying to keep doing what he’s been doing all year. He’s hit .300 for a reason. He’ll be all right. … He’ll be OK. He’s got good teammates out here that’ll pick him up. He’ll get rolling. He’s a good kid. I’m sure he’s been through it before.”
Middlebrooks got two hits in his next game and appears to have settled in for the final two weeks of the regular season. But Beyeler’s remarks about the media and expectations were kind of interesting. From Arnie’s perspective, it’s an honest statement because this is a no-nonsense baseball man who doesn’t even want to admit his team is in a pennant race. If there is hype in the neighborhood, it sure isn’t coming from Arnie Beyeler’s house.
From a broader perspective, though, Beyeler’s statement is just the tip of the iceberg. The media has grown into a monster over the past 30 years, ever since ESPN came on the scene and invented the 24-hour news cycle for sports.
Specifically, it was a story by ESPN.com’s Joe McDonald that began the “hype” on Middlebrooks, and Joe was just quoting Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis on the subject. According to McDonald, who covered Middlebrooks’s debut with Pawtucket last Friday evening, Youkilis approached him with the idea of doing a story on Kevin’s contract status with Boston two weeks earlier.
“Kevin wanted to talk to me,” McDonald admitted. The tradeoff was a good one. Youkilis knew ESPN.com would provide a high visibility for his comments, and McDonald got a story nobody else had.
McDonald set the stage for the Middlebrooks “hype” by mentioning in his August 6 story on Youkilis that Boston had a “highly-touted third base prospect” in the organization. That’s hardly an incendiary comment. In fact, it’s an accurate description of where Middlebrooks stands right now. The kid is indeed a highly-touted prospect, which means he has his own page on SOSH and other baseball-related websites.
McDonald then went into Youk’s comments, which really were about his contract status more than about a player who might take his place in Boston. Youkilis could be done in Boston after the 2012 season. The Red Sox hold a club option for 2013. Youkilis will turn 34 during spring training of 2013.
"I don't know what their plans are past (2013),” Youkilis said, “but I actually think it would be cool, if I don't play here, that there's going to be another guy to enjoy the opportunities that I had. I've been thinking about that a lot. Probably for the first time in my life I haven't worried about if I had to go to another team and it doesn't bother me. I've had so many great things that have happened to me here and if I have to go at some point, it is what it is. The coolest thing is that somebody gets to come here and play."
Youkilis, a Cincinnati native, hinted that he wouldn’t mind finishing his career in his hometown.
"If I were to go anywhere, I would want to go to Cincinnati and play in front of my parents at home. I think it would be really cool for my dad and my mom, but especially for my dad, growing up in Cincinnati, that would be a real cool thing."
So Youkilis got his message across to Boston management, a full year ahead of time, and on a prominent website. Young Will Middlebrooks was actually just a footnote in a much larger story.
***
When we talk about media “hype” during the Internet Era, ESPN is an easy target. Nobody does hype better than ESPN, which is the subject of a 700-page book by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller called “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN.” The book is basically an oral history of the network, told in the words of seemingly everyone who ever worked there, beginning with founder Bill Rasmussen, a television sports reporter who also did public relations work for the old New England Whalers pro hockey team in the WHA during the 1970s.
Rasmussen wanted to start a 24-hour network devoted to sports within his home state of Connecticut. He knew he had to bounce his TV signal off a satellite up in space. What he didn’t know was that satellite signal could be bought more cheaply if it went all over the USA. And that’s when the idea for ESPN really began to take shape.
The company grew too sophisticated for Rasmussen, who eventually was forced out by Getty Oil, one of the original money sources. Ownership has changed several times over the ensuing years as the cable network grew ever larger, adding more and more channels while also starting its own website, ESPN.com, which employs hundreds of sports writers around the country.
In short, ESPN changed the way we looked at sports. Before ESPN, people came home to five minutes of sports news on their local TV station, and a hometown telecast of their favorite teams on snowy channels with the signal enhanced by “rabbit ear” antennas sitting on top of the television, connected to a big antenna on the roof of the house.
Today, we get 24 hours of sports coverage on a variety of cable channels. Sports Illustrated, which once was the bible of weekly magazine coverage, is now better known as SI.com. The magazine itself is an after-thought. Nobody reads it anymore. Most of its best writers have left for Internet websites, including star columnist Rick Reilly, who jumped to ESPN.com several years ago.
In the ESPN book, Reilly talks about the difference between magazine and Internet writing.
“Well, you take 20 people to read it at SI: you can get two thousand at ESPN.!”
Reilly mentioned how he wrote a column for ESPN.com about football fans at the University of Virginia not being allowed to bring signs into the stadium. Reilly wrote that this is Thomas Jefferson’s school, where free speech would seem to be a given. University officials quickly dropped their opposition to signage and thousands of fans who had read Reilly’s column came armed with placards to the next game. A year later, unpopular head coach Al Groh was finally fired after several underachieving seasons.
Reilly is among many talented writers and reporters who have left the print medium for the Internet in this decade alone.
***
Arnie Beyeler knew what he was talking about when he said the media creates the hype. He is a baseball guy, and the biggest difference between people who work in the game, and the rest of us on the outside, is baseball people take the patient approach. They don’t worry about today. They’re looking at the big picture.
That’s completely the opposite of sports talk radio, the other creator of media hype in today’s world. Sports talk show voices live for the moment. Everything in their world must be discussed, and hopefully resolved, during their four hours on the air each day. (By the way, ESPN has its own radio network.)
Next time I see Arnie Beyeler, I’ll have to ask him what he thinks of sports talk radio.

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