Title this "I Was a Sports Junkie for a Day," or "I Have Seen the Future of TV Sports and It Makes Me Giggle."
I recently spent part of a weekend holed up in a motel room in Connecticut watching one full day—24 hours' worth—of the continuous sports programming ESPN puts on each weekend. ESPN is the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, the cable television outfit that has advertised itself as the network for sports junkies.
ESPN, based in Bristol, Conn., has been in operation since September and is now feeding sports to more than 500 cable TV companies in 47 states. On weekdays it's on the air from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.; on weekends it cranks up at 6 p.m. Friday and doesn't quit until 4 a.m. Monday. That's 58 hours. Nonstop. To find out just what kind of a fix the junkies are getting, I lay on a bed in Room 407 at the Holiday Inn in Plainville, Conn., gaping at basketball players leaping, hockey players high-sticking, go-karts buzzing and karate fighters flailing—taking whatever ESPN would send at me during 24 hours.
My cycle started at midnight Saturday with the final basketball game of the Cable Car Classic from Santa Clara, in which San Jose State beat the host school 77-62. The live telecast featured an excellent slow-motion replay of an errant basketball upsetting a soft drink on the press table and spraying a reporter. Minnesota then whipped Brown in hockey 8-2, after which—at 4:30 a.m.—came the irrepressible enthusiasm of Dick Vitale, the former Detroit Piston coach, doing color commentary on a taped replay of host Providence's attempt to upset No. 1-ranked Duke in the Industrial National Bank Classic. In my 5:50 a.m. stupor I recall Vitale saying, "Unbelievable, unreal, super, super, super game."
And so it went. The taped U.S. National Table Tennis Championships at 3:30 p.m. turned out to be the best event of the day. The slow-motion replays highlighted the skills of Attila Malek and Danny Seemiller, and Malek's 21-18 victory in the fifth game stood out as the best performance of the day. One of the low points was a tape of the International Kart Federation races from Jacksonville, Fla. at 6:30 a.m. A lower point—at 11:30 a.m.—was a tape of another Minnesota-Brown hockey game. This time Minnesota won 16-2.
Once I slipped into the junkie mentality, even ESPN couldn't provide enough sports to feed my habit. A tame golf feature at 3 p.m. about possible new stars on the PGA tour was not nearly enough of a grabber, and I switched to a regular CBS channel to pick up the NFL playoff game between Philadelphia and Chicago. By the end of my day, I had watched 11 events and numerous ESPN sports reports. Two repeat telecasts—of the Cable Car Classic and Rebel Roundup—provided welcome breaks for naps and short repasts to go along with the coffee fixes that helped keep me relatively alert.
It seemed that to test my mettle ESPN saved the toughest watching for last. The cancellation of the coverage of a Tokyo tennis tournament—the film had not arrived from Japan—necessitated the substitution of a canned program on China's Fourth National Games, a sort of Sino Spartakiade. Through most of my final two hours of viewing, I looked on with increasing giddiness at a gaggle of gymnastic events, motorcycle races with sidecars, parachuting competition and model-boat and model-plane racing. "Certainly a mixed bag of events, I must say," the spiffy British announcer said. All this was preceded by a gang of a thousand participating in opening ceremonies straight out of the chairman's Little Red Book. The theme of the pageantry: "How the new Chinese people are not afraid of obstacles."
No sports junkie was going to sit still for this sort of propaganda when, with a flick of the dial, he could bring in the Bruin-Ranger game at Madison Square Garden. I shifted back and forth between the hockey—which ended with the Bruins brawling with the Garden customers—and the Chinese sports menu until, mercifully, China gave way to a report from the ESPN studio. At the stroke of Sunday midnight, I got up off the bed and turned off the set, vowing never to turn it on again—well, at least not for another 24 hours.