Whether you get it or not, ESPN2 has no tie to the tried and true


Here's the early line on ESPN2: wins, losses, no ties.

When the new sports cable channel launches tonight at 7:30, don't strain your eyes looking for guys in ties and blazers.

Keith Olbermann, anchor of ESPN2's "SportsNight," was quoted in USA Today as saying: "Anybody who wears a jacket and tie will look like a narc."

In fact, if you have to strain your eyes to look at the television, you probably aren't in ESPN2's target demographic anyway. ESPN2 is seeking a young audience, men and women 18 to 34, who aren't sports nuts in the same way ESPN's viewers are.

"We're not going to come down from our high horse and say, 'This is a big football game. Here are the highlights,' " Olbermann said in a news conference this week. "We're not going to presume you have nothing better to do than watch us. We're going to sell it."

Olbermann's partner on "SportsNight," Suzy Kolber, said: "There are a lot of people out there who love sports, who love to participate in sports, who maybe couldn't care less about baseball stats."

So, when these folks turn on ESPN2 as accompaniment to their Stairmaster workouts, what will they see?

* "SportsNight": Described as ESPN2's flagship show, this program will be something of a "SportsCenter" on steroids and nitrous oxide. (Hence Olbermann's concern with narcs?)

"SportsNight" runs 7:30 to 10:30 Friday through Sunday nights. Olbermann, who was ESPN's funniest, hippest "SportsCenter" anchor, and Kolber, who looks as if she could be a sorority sister of MTV's Tabitha Soren, will be the hosts. Joining them at the anchor desk will be Mitch Albom, a frequent ESPN presence and Detroit Free Press sportswriter who produces what could be the nation's best sports column, or Bill Patrick, an ex-regular on "SportsCenter."

"The approach will be considerably lighter than 'SportsCenter,' " Olbermann said, "but our approach to the news won't be lighter."

So don't call it "SportsLight." During a preview program, Olbermann said: "When it comes to news, we'll be comprehensive, thorough and extremely skeptical."

Aah, I don't believe him. Only kidding. Just a little ESPN2 humor.

In addition to a skeptically comprehensive, light look at the day's sports news, "SportsNight" will offer five-minute score updates each half-hour called "SportsSmash." In addition, there will be such a parade of people analyzing, arguing, reporting and joking that you may wonder if this is a sports show or a Robert Altman movie. Comedians, sportswriters, talk show hosts and former MTV veejays (OK, just one, "Downtown" Julie Brown) will help fill the " 'Night."

* "Talk2": On weeknights at 10:30, Southern California sports radio personality Jim Rome will be host of a one-hour interview and call-in show. The program will open with "Romey's Blast," a short monologue by Rome on that day's sports doings.

Rome's guest tonight will be Wayne Gretzky, and the first week's schedule is heavy on Los Angeles pro athletes and network sportscasters.

Rome's program is being billed as a sports version of CNN's "Larry King Live." Gee. As Casey Kasem would say, "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

* "Jock'n Roll": (Note the clever use of an apostrophe instead of running the whole title together.) This is a concept you've probably already tried yourself. Do you listen to the radio or hum as you scan the box scores in your newspaper? Same deal with "Jock'n Roll." For an hour starting at 3 a.m., ESPN2 will run box scores, game summaries and standings with "contemporary music as a backdrop." Here's a suggestion: Play R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" along with Mets boxes.

* Event programming: ESPN2 will televise the traditional (NHL, college basketball, auto racing), the marginal (Arena Football, volleyball) and the unbelieveable (BMX racing, snowboarding, sky surfing). That's unbelieveable as in hard to believe there is much of an audience for "extreme sports," once described -- by me, I think -- as games in which the object is not to break your leg.

But ESPN2 says young viewers are attracted by this mix. The channel will carry at least 75 NHL games, and the league must be encouraged that hockey is seen as attractive to this market. On the other hand, the NHL will get to be juxtaposed with "Max Out," an extreme sports series (part of tonight's premiere at 11:30) that has aired on ESPN to rave reviews of 11-year-old boys everywhere.

* Spend and sweat: Also look for blocks of fitness programming and home shopping for sports merchandise. You've seen the team, now own the jersey.

During this week's news conference, there was lots of talk about how different ESPN2 would be, about whether enough viewers would "get it."

"Even if you don't get it," Olbermann said, "this is what sports eventually is going to be."

"I think you're going to see something different," Rome said. "The paradigm is going to shift."

Whether paradigms shift, the earth moves or doves cry isn't really the point. If ESPN2 can build from its opening household base of nearly 10 million (ESPN can be seen in about 62 million homes), that will be proof enough that viewers are getting it.

Maybe "SportsNight" can't replace "SportsCenter" in the hearts and minds of American sports fans. Maybe the potential audience for "Max Out" will be too busy watching "Beavis and Butt-head" on MTV. Maybe I'll never get invited to be a guest expert on ESPN2.

The biggest maybe is that maybe there is already enough sports on television without another 24-hour service.

Then again, in the coming 500-channel universe, maybe this is just a step toward ESPN3 through 68.


The following area cable systems will be carrying ESPN2 tonight:

* Baltimore County Comcast

* Harford County Comcast

* Howard Cable

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