St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a year in sports media.
Normally, there are about dozen sports documentaries on television each year. HBO usually has a few, and ESPN might chip in with a handful. But 2010 might have been the most prolific year ever in sports documentaries because of ESPN's 30 for 30' series. A brainchild of ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, ESPN enlisted top film and documentary makers — the list included Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton and John Singleton — to produce one- to two-hour films looking back at some of the iconic sports moments of the past 30 years. Of the 23 films debuting in 2010, there were very few duds. Most were incredibly well done, especially Pony Excess, which looked at the SMU football scandal of the 1980s; The Birth of Big Air, which featured the career of BMX legend Mat Hoffman; Without Bias, a retrospective on the life and death of former Maryland basketball star Len Bias; and The Best That Never Was, which covered the all-too-brief football career of Oklahoma's Marcus Dupree.
However, one of ESPN's 30 for 30 films was clearly head and shoulders above the rest and was the finest sports documentary of the year. The Two Escobars, made by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, was a haunting look back at the relationship between the cocaine cartels and the national soccer team of Colombia in the early 1990s during the heyday of drug lord Pablo Escobar. That relationship ultimately led to the murder of Andres Escobar, a player on the Colombian national team (and of no relation to Pablo) who scored an own-goal in the 1994 World Cup. It's one of those films that leaves you shaken well after it is over.
HBO has found the winning formula with its reality, behind-the-scenes study of athletes and sports teams in its 24/7 and Hard Knocks franchises. Hard Knocks already has become classic television and a must-see for sports fans, especially after it featured the charismatic Rex Ryan and his New York Jets over the summer. That was the can't-miss sports series of the year.
Two words: The Decision. ESPN's one-hour special in July of where LeBron James was going to sign should have been one of the highlights in the network's long and storied history. Instead, it went down as one of its worst moments as the network blurred the line that is supposed to separate it from the athletes it covers. The show itself felt like a hostage situation as viewers had to wait 22 minutes before the interview between Jim Gray and James even began. Then Gray milked it further, asking 16 questions before finally getting James' decision.
Best football pregame show
While ESPN's Sunday Morning Countdown might be the best meat-and-potatoes pregame show (and certainly miles ahead of what have become watered-down shows on Fox and CBS), NBC's Football Night in America is the best of the lot. Because Football Night comes on in the evening, it has the advantage of filling much of its show with that day's highlights. But what sets the show apart is the talent: hosts Bob Costas and Dan Patrick, game announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, and analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison. All are elite broadcasters who always have something interesting to say.
Fox adding NFL rules expert Mike Pereira to its NFL coverage was so brilliant that you wonder why no one ever thought of it before.
Best event coverage
1. NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, particularly the USA-Canada hockey games announced by the incomparable Mike Emrick.
2. ESPN's coverage of the World Cup. This might have been in the top spot if I were counting just actual game coverage, but the studio pre- and postgame shows were a bit of a weak link.
3. TBS's baseball coverage was the surprise of the year. In the past, the network's coverage seemed a step behind Fox, but it forged ahead this season solely because of the outstanding analysis of John Smoltz and Ron Darling, two of the rising stars in broadcasting.
Best radio shows
Dan Patrick (heard locally on 1010-AM) is now the gold standard of national radio shows. Patrick gets great guests and asks insightful and offbeat questions, and the banter between him and his underlings is easy, light, funny and, best of all, interesting. Meantime, on the local scene, afternoon-drive hosts Steve Duemig (620-AM) and J.P. Peterson (1010-AM) continue to set the pace. Too bad they are on at the same time.
Best sports book
Susan Casey's The Wave: The Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean. A well-reported, well-written insight into one of the most powerful forces in nature — the monster waves that challenge the best and most insane surfers of the world. The book is part surfing, part science and entirely brilliant.
NBC hockey announcer Mike Emrick knows more about the sport he broadcasts than any other broadcaster knows about any sport. And no one relays the history, the nuances and the game better than Emrick.
I don't know who is better: ABC and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit when he is on the pregame show College GameDay or Herbstreit when he is in the booth calling a game. Either one is the best analyst in sports.
Three things on the rise in 2010
1. Rays television ratings were at an all-time high this year and among the best in all of baseball.
2. Versus has seen a jump in its NHL ratings, thanks to the Olympics, and has even added a nightly weekday show, NHL Overtime, that recaps the night in hockey.
3. NFL ratings continue to dominate not just sports television, but all television. Of the 20 most-watched television programs in the fall, 18 were NFL games.
Three things on the decline in 2010
1. NASCAR's TV ratings continue to drop at an alarming pace, and there's a feeling they haven't bottomed out yet.
2. Interesting that at the same time that the Connecticut women were setting the Division I basketball record for consecutive victories, twice as many people were watching a bad bowl game in St. Petersburg between Louisville and Southern Miss.
3. It appears 3-D television hasn't made quite the impact that those in the industry predicted. It might be more "fad'' than "next big thing.''