Masters will take good with the bad with ESPN

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Somewhere on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., the promotional department is pitching a new series of 30-second screenplays. We can imagine the rough notes read something like this.

LOCATION: The National Hills parking lot with the water tower looming on the other side of Washington Road.

SETTING: A tailgate party outside of David Toms' mobile home trimmed in LSU purple and gold.

SITUATION: Toms (wearing Mardi Gras beads) and Chris DiMarco (wearing a Gator head) stand in the background brandishing 5-irons menacingly and arguing about which half of the Southeastern Conference is better. Sitting in lawn chairs and eating assorted fried foods are Lou Holtz, Kenny Mayne and the mascot for Syracuse University. At the grill wearing a chef's hat and an apron that reads "Not so fast, my friend ... real BBQ cooks slow" is Lee Corso, trying unsuccessfully to strike a match.

"Does anyone have a light?" asks Corso.

To the grill steps Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne, wearing a trademark green jacket and carrying a torch from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

This is SportsCenter Augusta - Coming April 2008.

Forget the traditions unlike any other, the tinkling Augusta music and Jim Nantz's soft and syrupy commentary. Augusta National and its new chairman have taken another bold move into a strategic alliance with the preferred cable choice of Gen Xers - ESPN.

The most unabashedly self-promotional television network in the world has linked up with the last bastion of limited commercialization left on the planet. It's the kind of peculiar union that could put the Masters Tournament on the map with a demographic about half a century younger than the average age of a club member.

This is certainly what Payne was striving to do when the tournament ended a 25-year relationship with USA Network to televise the Thursday and Friday rounds of the Masters and went with the cable sports leader. He said so right in the club's press release (which conspicuously didn't make any mention of appreciation for the long-standing relationship it had with USA).

"With the worldwide reach of ESPN, and their demonstrated leadership in new media, we think ESPN is uniquely positioned to showcase the Masters and golf to new audiences," Payne said.

It's hard to argue with the move. There is no greater promotional entity in sports than the original 24-hour sports network. It is as much of a name brand that instinctively flows off the tongue as Coke or Kleenex. It is the television homepage for sports fans.

Not that the Masters needed a connection with ESPN to get noticed. The tournament's profile would be fine if it were aired on C-SPAN. Augusta National tells the networks what they can show, how much of it and when they can air it, not the other way around. The golfing public that cares will lap up whatever is offered.

It was the PGA Tour that should have bedded itself with ESPN when it last renegotiated the TV contract. Instead, the tour committed itself to 15 years with the boutique Golf Channel, essentially preaching to an already converted choir at least two days a week during the season instead of the broader audience that ESPN attracts.

But ESPN doesn't come without its warts. As much good as it has done for sports, there is a hefty dose of bad. Its anchors have created the genre of look-at-me journalism, cultivating catch phrases and trying to be as much a part of the show that they cover. What seemed clever at first has grown increasingly shallow and annoying as the years and less creative talent have rolled by.

Even worse, ESPN has created the culture of the preening athlete. Gone are the days when players went about their business like true professionals. Now it's all about creating their own personas to stand out above their own team so they can get their moment of glory onto SportsCenter. The more outrageous and obnoxious, the better.

What do you think Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones would think it they watched the likes of Terrell Owens on camera? Do you think they'd want a network that celebrates his impolite behavior presenting their civilized golf tournament? And would the club that found Gary McCord's bikini-wax and buried-elephant schtick too much to tolerate really want to hear Stuart Scott punctuate every dropped putt with a loud "BOO-yah!"?

Maybe the last place on earth that holds the leash on television will have a reciprocal positive influence on ESPN and its audience. Augusta has a way of bringing out the best in those who enter its gates.

If not, at least think of the treasure trove of in-house commercials that could be awaiting.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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