Any time Michael Jordan played a game on ESPN, the network ratings (which predicate how much a network can charge for advertising) would spike upward. Baseball fans who weren't emotionally attached to either the Yankees or Red Sox got tired of seeing them play. Why? Because ESPN would latch onto their games like a tick and broadcast as many of their matchups as possible for higher ratings.
There are very few sports personalities that command that sort of attention. Nobody rivals Muhammad Ali in that respect, but athletes who can be identified with one name – Jack, Tiger and Phil in golf, Michael, Kobe, Shaq and LeBron in basketball, Barry, A-Rod and Cal in baseball, Wayne and Mario in hockey and Peyton, L.T., T.O. and Randy in the NFL – are a different breed of marketing star. When you achieve that "first-name status" with fans, any time ESPN can pimp those stars, numbers go up. It's a symbiotic relationship. Big stars draw big attention.
It can be argued that no NFL player is a brighter star than Brett Favre. Peyton Manning is the best player, but, when Favre talks, the world listens. Because of this, he is the most marketable NFL star in the business. When the Vikings played the Packers on ESPN, it set not only a network record for viewership, but instead of bowing at the Altar of Brett (they may have had to move John Madden out of the way), ESPN has taken great pleasure in vilifying Favre.
For some reason, ESPN's treatment of Favre makes little to no sense. The network routinely trots out former players or coaches to comment on the news of the day. With its increasingly aggressive parasite-host relationship with the NFL – Disney knows how to turn a buck and its corporate overlords know that the NFL is so far superior to other sports that its regular season-games out-draw playoff baseball, basketball or hockey – the attachment to a guy like Favre was a natural fit.
The last two days were just the latest example of how ESPN has suckled on the Favre teat – milking hundreds of hours of "offseason" coverage to Favre's health, his age, his impact on the Vikings and the balance of power in the NFC, his legacy, his love for the game and his questionable return. He's been the butt of jokes, criticism and character assassination.
ESPN's Tuesday afternoon coverage was dominated by Favre, which, a day short of the one-year anniversary of his arrival last year, included an eerily similar helicopter-chasing SUV ride from an airport to Winter Park. No Escalade this time. Ryan Longwell's BMW X5 had to suffice. The twists were similar to last year, except this time it wasn't Chilly serving as his driver, waiting with a sign that said "Farve" on the tarmac to take his bags, get him a cool beverage and drive him to Winter Park. Longwell, Steve Hutchinson and Jared Allen went to get an answer – which turned out to be "yes."
Instead of crediting the ingenuity of sending down three team captains to lure the star QB back, ESPN has made a mockery of the return. Tedy Bruschi, whose own career ended as he attempted to play after sustaining injuries that would have made lesser men quit, opted to play the role of bad cop (or ignorant cop, as the case may be). Somehow the discussion of Favre's return transformed into a venomous ill-informed tirade about the three Vikings veterans "begging" Favre to return. One by one, ESPN anchors became contestants on Open Mike Night at the Chuckle Hut, creating their own jokes and working far too many waffle references into the mix.
The Wednesday evening Sports Center included three separate segments with extensive portions of Favre's press conference from Wednesday. As if that wasn't enough, they performed a lame dog-and-pony rip-off of David Letterman's Top 10 list (including the milestone 50th waffle reference) and a quote from Hamlet pertaining to a man not being able to make up his mind.
Why ESPN is choosing to mock Favre and his return is curious. Perhaps it was the Favre obituary the network did a couple weeks ago when it ran with the "This is it" text message. If that's so, their bitterness seems a little out of place.
Unfortunately, when the Vikings play the Jets and Bears on ESPN Monday night games, expect Favre butt-kissing to return. Apparently ESPN lives by the short attention-span policy.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.