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It was a place that legends were made of, at least according to its ads.
Launched in 1996 as the Classic Sports Network, ESPN Classic was a hugely original and successful idea – a channel dedicated to replaying classic sports events. On any given night, a viewer could watch a baseball, basketball or hockey game – and it that was usually a pretty good game, too.
If it was momentous, eventful or significant, chances are it’s aired on Classic. Steve Smith scoring in his own net to Jordan hitting a jump shot over Craig Ehlo to Joe Carter cranking a fastball over the left field wall have all aired, as have many, many other games.
As the channel grew, it added original programming: Sportscentury, a biography show on famous athletes that examined their lives and legacy; Top Five Reasons, which put infamous sports moments in new light; Classic Now, a show that put today’s sports headlines in historical context.
At the same time, the games started appearing less and less, often replaced by poker, tournament fishing and infomercials. Specialty channels, such as the NHL and NBA Networks, started airing their respective leagues old games. Major League Baseball began to sell copies of theirs both on DVD and online.
And the NFL, the most popular league in the US, never allowed Classic to re-air games in their entirety, selling highlights compiled by NFL Films instead.
But now the NFL is coming to ESPN Classic, and it could spell the end for the network.
According to Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, ESPN and the NFL are in talks to air NFL Network programming – most likely live NFL games – on Classic. Since the NFL Network’s launch five years ago, it has been plagued with problems: they have had disagreements with the two largest cable operators in the US: Time Warner and Comcast.
But Classic is a channel already carried by most operators. And as part of the ESPN brand, it has name appeal to every sports fan.
This move is also the latest that shows a trend to move Classic away from classic sports. In the past couple years, it’s carried live NCAA football and basketball games. Last June, ESPN announced it was stopping production of programming on Classic. And this summer, it has been airing parts of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament on the channel.
If they strike a deal with the NFL to show more live programming on Classic, why should ESPN continue to brand the channel as ESPN Classic, as opposed to simply ESPN3? And what of Monday Night Football – would it move to Classic as well?
A quick look at Monday’s ESPN Classic schedule shows two auto races, four episodes of Sportscentury and an episode of American Gladiators, among other programs.
Comparatively, Canada’s ESPN Classic – owned by TSN – shows two NHL games and a CFL match from 1990.
Maybe it’s just me, but only one of them sounds like a place that legends are made of.
For more stories like this, check out my new sports media blog, Jock Talk.