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.