Tuesday, October 06, 2009

ESPN's "30 For 30" Debuts: "30 for 80s?"

ESPN's hugely anticipated "30 for 30" documentary series (starting tonight) is nothing as much as it is the triumph for sports fans of a certain age. That age is 37.5.

But let's call it ages 35-40: This would be ESPN's bulls-eye target market: Has enough money to spend on marketer messages, still considers themselves "young." I'm in that target. And don't forget the ultimate manifestation of that target: Bill Simmons, not coincidentally an executive producer of the "30 for 30" series.

As you look through the "30 for 30" topics covered -- at least in the first 3 months -- what you see predominantly are sports events from the formative years of someone who, at the time, was anywhere from 9-18 years old -- call it the age of sports-fan puberty -- when the event happened. Check it out, in the order the documentaries are going to be released:

Gretzky traded to LA: 1988
Colts moved to Indianapolis: 1984
USFL Dies: 1985
Ali-Holmes Fight: 1980
Len Bias dies: 1986
Jimmy the Greek: 1988
Miami's heyday: 1987-ish
Reggie vs. the Knicks: 1995

Of the first 8 subjects, 6 climaxed between 1984 and 1988. If you are 35-40 today, the events would have happened between the time you were 9 and 18. Most notably, if you are younger than 30-ish today, you will have no (or virtually no) at-the-time recollection of any of these seminal events.

Was sports that much more interesting back then? Arguably yes, for two reasons: (1) Media was vastly more limited than it was even 10 years later, let alone today, and so the stories -- while well-known -- are still appealingly opaque to us. And (2) your own (admittedly inflated) sense of nostalgia for the events of your own formative sports years.

For fans older than 35, the appeal of the documentaries is obvious: They will return you to the seminally transcendent sports events of your childhood.

I am intrigued by the interest of fans under 30 for these subjects: For all the first-hand memory, it might as well be documentaries about baseball during World War 2 or the ABA or Billie Jean King or Jack Johnson. You either have a personal frame of reference to a story -- or it's distant history. The "30 for 30" series has extraordinarily compelling topics, to be sure -- but still beyond personal recollection for so many fans.

Of course, that's OK. The series is intended to be about nostalgia. And, at least within these first 8 documentaries, it intentionally or not frames the mid-1980s as some sort of mythical Golden Era for dramatic sports storylines.

Is Gretzky being traded more interesting than Michael Jordan unretiring... for the Wizards?
Is the Colts' relocation to Indy more brutal than the Browns' relocation to Baltimore?
Is the USFL failing more wild than the rise of NASCAR?
Is Len Bias dying more tragic than Pat Tillman?
Is Jimmy the Greek's influence on sports gambling more compelling than the rise of fantasy sports?
Is Miami's heyday more insane than college football recruiting is today?

It is obviously not fair -- or even worthwhile -- to compare.

However, the answer is yes -- if you are "of a certain age."

You want to think that your precious childhood memories are more interesting than everyone else's -- that they aren't simply part of an ongoing cycle of sports drama that continues every season, even every day.

Even if plenty of fans under 30 would love to argue with you about that, it would diminish your own childhood -- erode your own foundation of fandom -- to realize that the times were interesting, but some kind of "Golden Era" of sports.

Sports is not frozen back in the mid-80s just because it was your/my own youth. It reconstitutes itself every day -- with every new event -- and thank goodness for that. If it never got any better than it was back in the mid-80s, the last 25 years of sports -- and the next 25 years -- would suck.

It is worth noting that this is only the first 8 of the 30. Most of the rest of the doc subjects go beyond that mid-80s window: 1994 (Jordan baseball), 2003 (Bartman), 1995 (Rugby World Cup), mid-90s (Mat Hoffman), early-90s (rap culture embraces LA Raiders), 1999 (Charismatic), current (Right To Play), mid-00s (Marion Jones). The range of events over the last 30 years is well-covered, and I personally can't wait to watch every one, starting tonight with the Gretzky-trade story. "30 for 30" is arguably the coolest thing ESPN has ever done on TV.

But it is notable that the series -- which will run over 15 months, through December 2010 -- begins with such heavy representation of such a small window of time.

If you are a fan of my generation -- if your formative years happened during this wild era in the mid-1980s -- this will take you back. I think that's the point.

-- D.S.


Ross Jacobson said...

As a 21-year-old college student I am more than excited for the 30 for 30 ESPN documentaries. I'm especially interested in the documents that "climax" in the mid-1980s (before my lifetime). It is the mystery and sense of learning something that I have read / heard about before, but never witnessed, that draws me to these docs.

Andy said...

I'm 36, but maybe because I grew up in the south, the only one of these that means anything to me is Miami. I didn't care about hockey, NFL, NBA or boxing until I started watching ESPN daily.

Jason Clinkscales said...

Dan, I'm 27, which puts me as too young to remember the backstory for some events, but old enough to remember that they actually happened in my lifetime.

While I certainly see your point about how a 'certain age' may view this series in a different light than the rest of us, I think that fans my age just want to see a story with complete, unabated honesty from all sides. Sure that's the idea from the jump, but considering this era of media consumption and the sophistication of sports fans in general, there's a strong desire for retrospective storytelling.

I would also add that my generation has a fair share of seminal moments, but we've had enough history thrown at us from the usual suspects of sports; baseball as Americana, football as the media behemouth, Ali and apparently no one else in boxing, the Magic and Larry era, etc. It's not to say that we don't appreciate those stories being told, but what is on tap for the first three months is quite promising.

By the way, Unforgiveable Blackness was an excellent look into Jack Johnson's life.

Zach Smith said...

I'll echo what Ross said. I'm almost 22 myself, a child of the late 80s. The stories happened shortly before I was born, but I think I find them interesting because they had a tangible impact on those memories that are from my formative years in the mid-late 90's. WWII would be too long ago to really see the impact, but not so in this case.

BD said...

As a 28 year-old I can only remember the end of the Erickson Hurricanes and the Knicks/Reggie rivalry. However, since the majority of sportswriters I have read all endlessly refer to many of the events covered I can't wait to watch. Its like picking up a TV series in the 4th season. You immediately rent the DVD's and see what happened to bring us to this point.

The events covered in the 30 for 30 explain the origins of a lot of the sporting world. I.E. Owners holding towns Ransom/the exodus of the Browns/Oilers/Sonics, etc, Ali's current physical state, Superstars leaving town/Favre?, the demolition of a league/AFL/NHL?

Virtually every story relates to a current sporting theme.