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I'm staring hard at a fat man about to go reversal of fortune. His bloated body is full of sodium. His eyes are heavy. His breath is short. Maybe it's the four bills he's carrying on his frame. Maybe it's the fact that he's just swallowed 18 hot dogs in 390 seconds. All I know is I can no longer stomach the spicy tuna roll I was enjoying a minute ago. I, too, am about to go reversal of fortune. I blame ESPN. I thank ESPN.
On July 4th, perhaps as its gift to an overweight nation, the network aired the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, an hour-long glamorization of the gluttony that is considered the Super Bowl of competitive eating. It featured 20 contestants, including a competition-high 13 from the United States, the fattest country in the world. The telecast was superb from an entertainment standpoint: Host Gary Miller was dogged about his subject matter ( "This is the Masters, this is the Super Bowl, the Daytona of competitive eating") as was reporter Darren Rovell, who specializes in sports business and does terrific work for ESPN.com and ESPN News. Analyst Richard Shea, the co-founder of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, was a perfect carnival barker. ("I don't want to take anything away from [Barry] Bonds but to compare [champion eater Takero] Kobayashi to Bonds is a slight against Kobayashi!"). The broadcast was a coup for his organization. "We view this as a significant step forward for competitive eating and we hope it will help build momentum for our effort to secure a place in the Olympics," said David Baer, director of global expansion for the IFOCE.
Faster. Higher. Fatter.
ESPN deserves its share of blame for the many of the ills of our youth-obsessed and lazy culture -- assigning Dick Vitale to its NBA draft coverage would be high on my list -- but I contend its glamorization of gluttony could be very good for the health of this nation. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 59 million Americans are obese and the percentage of young people who are obese has more than doubled in the past 20 years (Nice to see a Playstation 2 commercial during the telecast, by the way). It's phat to be fat in the U.S. and I'm convinced that only one entity can save us and it's not Anna Nicole Smith.
The company already has seven domestic networks that make oodles of money so why not establish one with a public service bent: ESPN EAT. Celebrate gluttony. Hot dog eating contests. Buffalo Wing eating contests. Imagine the weigh-ins before these eat-offs, a Scared Straight ad against obesity if there ever was one. SportsCenter anchors could deliver news between bites at the ESPN Zone and Jim Rome is Burning could morph into Jim Rome is Eating. How about a nutrition-based Pardon the Interruption ("Wilbon, you idiot! Everybody knows you can't eat M&Ms on the South Beach diet!). Soon, people would learn that reversal of fortune had nothing to do with Jeremy Irons and Claus von Bulow, and everything to do with what happens when your body reacts to eating too much. Alas, an ESPN spokesperson told SI.com this week that there are no plans to air additional competitive eating contests, though with the healthy hot dog ratings (the broadcast drew a 0.9 rating or about 765,000 households, according to Nielson) it's likely you'll see Kobayashi next summer attempt to break the record 53 1/2 hot dogs he woofed down last week.
Personally, I was so shaken after watching the sheer mass of competitors such as 409-pound Ed (Cookie) Jarvis and 420-pound Eric (Badlands) Booker that I immediately went out and jogged a couple miles. I'm convinced that even minimal viewing of an eating channel would have folks exchanging a bun for a run. One graphic even showed that Booker was the World Matzah Ball Eating Champion after gulping 21 matzo balls in 5 minutes and 25 seconds. Oy veh. I'm off to the gym.
McEnroe: A Review
Here are three things I liked about McEnroe, the new CNBC talk show hosted by tennis commentator John McEnroe: First, it's not Dennis Miller, which serves as its lead-in and is unwatchable. Second, it has a terrific theme song thanks to former Scandal singer Patty Smyth, who doubles as McEnroe's wife. And, finally, as I mentioned earlier, it's not Dennis Miller. For those 50-somethings who watch Squawk Box, lust after CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo and religiously follow the Russell 2000 Index, McEnroe likely comes across as a baby-booming hipster. For the rest of us, he's an aging athlete who loves being the center of attention. He's a quality tennis commentator but McEnroe, as CNBC suits will come to learn, is best in small doses. His first week guests (Will Ferrell, Sting, Lars Ulrich, Karch Kiraly) have been first rate, but so were the guests for Magic Johnson and Chevy Chase's opening week.
Eventually, McEnroe's fate will be determined by both his likeability and whether he can expand his audience behind those who attended the U.S. Open in 1983. His harangue on former Enron CEO and Chairman Ken Lay made us smile but he'd be better served not to do shtick. During a comedy segment on his first night called Dear John, in which McEnroe answered questions that had previously been printed in magazine advice columns, there was a letter that appeared in Cosmo from a well-endowed woman who thought she was attracting attention merely because of the size of her breasts. His advice was to "make sure she has a good ass" if she had a breast reduction. Funny stuff, Groucho.
The bar for a CNBC talk show has been set absurdly low thanks to Miller, who was once the funniest man on television before he became a born-again bore. McEnroe may indeed turn out to be mediocre talk-show host -- and still be a winner for CNBC. At the very least, his show is great for tennis. The sport needs all the publicity it can get, and McEnroe will likely spend a couple of minutes each week on today's players in between showing three decades-old clips of him screaming at an linespeople.
60 Seconds with ... Paul Sherwen
The Outdoor Life Network announcer anchors the network's Tour De France coverage alongside longtime partner Phil Liggett.
SI.com: If you did not have the option of being a sports broadcaster, what would you likely have become?
Sherwen: Probably a safari guide. I grew up in Uganda and I still live in Kampala. Wildlife, being in the bush, and safari has always been a major part of my life.
SI.com: What's the one event you wish you could cover that currently airs on another network?
Sherwen: Well, I'm fairly lucky because at OLN we cover nearly all the top bike races around the world. But I suppose one thing would be the Paris-Dakar rally [the legendary, off-road motor race]. It's probably almost as tough as the Tour de France to cover.
SI.com: If you were starting a network, who is the one broadcaster you would go all out to hire?
Sherwen: [Rugby commentator] Bill McLaren of the BBC. Rugby is a tough sport to call but he comes up with some of the most unbelievable lines and because of his Scottish accent, he can get away with some of the things he says.
SI.com: What do you consider your greatest on-air achievement?
Sherwen: I suppose really the longevity of the number of years Phil Liggett and I have covered the Tour de France. This is my 19th Tour de France with Phil and in broadcasting terms, that's quite a long career for two guys to have together. We've probably spent more time together than we have at home.
SI.com: You're a seven-time Tour de France competitor (1978-1985) and a two time British national champion (1986-87). Can a non-professional cyclist broadcast the Tour as well as someone who has competed in it?
Sherwen: That's hard to answer. Having ridden the Tour gives me the respect of the athletes, which somebody who has not ridden a bicycle might not have. I can understand what they are going through and what they've got to go through because I've been there myself. Somebody who hasn't done the sport could never understand how difficult it is.
SI.com: What word or words do you most overuse in your broadcast?
Sherwen: Check the bingo cards. Apparently, there are bingo cards on the Internet of phrases that Phil and I use a lot. Like "digging into his suitcase of coverage."
SI.com: Although it's very early in the race, what are Lance Armstrong's chances for a sixth title?
Sherwen: Everything is on track at the moment but if you've seen the way the race has developed over the past week, it can all disappear in a space of five kilometers. [Spain's] Iban Mayo looked like a serious challenger on Day 1 and 2. Then last Tuesday he had a mundane crash out on the road and lost four minutes. Lance is looking good. But he knows there are so many dangers on the route.
Two programs you'll be talking about around the cooler come next week:
July 9, 8 p.m., NBC U.S. Swimmimg Trials
NBC offers an hour of good-looking youngsters performing daring athletic feats. The real bonus, of course, is there's no Joe Rogan. Swimming and gymnastics are the glamour events of the first week of the Olympics and after these trials are over, Michael Phelps will be the closest thing NBC has to a pre-Olympics star. The 19-year Aquaman is entered in six individual events at the trials in an attempt to match MarkSpitz's seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games. Friday's coverage features Phelps in the 200 free, an event in which Aussie strongman Ian Thorpe will be awaiting him come next month in Athens.
July 13, 8 p.m., Fox, Major League All Star Game
Yes, Fox, we know this time it counts. Home-field advantage is on the line for the World Series -- can you feel the tension? -- as baseball's best look to squeeze some runs out at Minute Maid Park. The expected National League battery of Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza should provide some early interest. These two pals were last seen together on a big stage at the 2000 World Series, when Clemens went postal and hurled Piazza's broken bat back at him. Tim McCarver, still the best baseball analyst in the business, will call his 13th All-Star game, tying Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola for the most All-Star Game assignments. That's a dozen more than Scooter, the much-maligned cartoon talking baseball which shows the movement of pitches, and for some reason returns for tonight's telecast.