ESPN’s next trick ought to be a real doozy. We say that because in just three hours on Sunday, executives at the network made their critics forget about Stephen A. Smith’s ridiculous take on Shohei Ohtani and their own botched handling of the year-long drama over Rachel Nichols.
The cable sports network really outdid itself by showing a sham high school football game. By comparison, the racing fans waiting out a three-hour rain delay capped by a sham two-lap Formula 1 race on ESPN2 proved to be lucky.
ESPN had a bad Sunday on two continents
The Formula 1 schedule resumed this weekend, and motorsports fans eagerly awaited the latest showdown between seven-time series champion Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. With anticipation building and the race slated for a challenging track, the Belgian Grand Prix had everything going for it.
Except the weather.
At-times torrential rain shortly before the 9 a.m. ET start delayed proceedings. Though the precipitation eased, there wasn’t enough of a let-up to start. With the radar looking bleak, the Sky Sports broadcast crew began raising the possibility of postponing the competition by a day. But with the Dutch Grand Prix scheduled for the following weekend, running the race as scheduled was imperative.
For what it’s worth, the Sky Sports broadcast looked solid throughout. However, fans wanted to see lightning-fast cars, not raindrops. Close to three hours into the initial delay, F1 officials deployed the cars to the track behind the safety car. After two laps far below racing speed and with no passing permitted, they called the “race.”
Verstappen picked up the “victory,” George Russell “earned” his first podium finish, and Hamilton captured third, all based upon results from qualifying a day earlier.
ESPN bore no responsibility for the farce. Formula 1 establishes the rules and procedures, and the cable sports network merely retransmits the Sky Sports feed.
If only the ESPN executives could claim no culpability for the day’s other travesty, the shady high school football game in Canton, Ohio, between IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore.
The acronym for Bishop Sycamore is BS, which seems about right
Powerful IMG Academy from Florida traveled to Ohio to play Bishop Sycamore and walked away with a 58-0 victory. The game wasn’t even over before the internet came alive with questions about Sycamore, chiefly how a team that unimpressive landed in the Geico Kickoff Classic on ESPN.
By Monday morning, mainstream media was all over the story. Everyone involved in the game comes out of the mess looking some shade of bad.
Start with IMG Academy, a traditional powerhouse that attracts players from all over the country. IMG walloped Sycamore last year, 56-6. Surely, the IMG coaching staff didn’t expect Sycamore to improve that much in a year.
Next on the list of those deserving a spin through the Cuisinart processor is Paragon Marketing, the matchmaker that ESPN uses for high school programming. They vetted Sycamore with all the intensity of a sleeping cat. Awful Announcing reported that ESPN staff claimed to have contacted Paragon weeks in advance because they couldn’t find any info about the Sycamore team or even the school, and Paragon couldn’t help.
Lastly comes ESPN. At the time that they booked the matchup in the spring, the Sycamore people assured everyone that they had numerous Division I prospects. But those same people allegedly scrapped a conference call with ESPN days before the game, leaving the network with no meaningful information about the program’s history and players’ college offers.
At that point, ESPN execs should have pulled the plug on its telecast and subbed in cornhole or poker fodder that they surely have sitting around in case of emergency.
The ESPN game was even more dubious than we knew at the time
The game between IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore looked like a mismatch from the start. Here are a few nuggets confirming the magnitude of the train wreck:
- Media outlets determined that the same roster of Sycamore players lost a game outside of Pittsburgh two nights earlier. A Paragon official told Awful Announcing the company believed that perhaps Sycamore fielded two varsity teams.
- Someone at Sycamore started a GoFundMe campaign a week ago with a $20,000 goal to defray expenses. The solicitation contained multiple typos.
- Awful Announcing also reported that Sycamore uses post-grads, some of whom played in junior-college games and might be 20 or even 21 years old.
The disclosures about the actual Sycamore school made the affair look even worse. For starters, no one seems to be able to pin down a physical address for the school or its facilities. The Ohio High School Athletic Association does not recognize Sycamore and could not confirm that it conducts classes.
It gets worse:
- The school’s website is a blog untouched since May 21.
- A parent of a former student said that players have been evicted from apartments and hotel rooms due to lack of payment by the school.
- Topping it all off, no one could find any reference to a person named Bishop Sycamore who would have been of any significance in Ohio.
All in all, it’s a significant embarrassment for ESPN. The network scheduled the broadcast and failed to act on red flags indicating something was amiss. Laying the blame on Paragon only goes so far. Even if they don’t care much about their own reputation, ESPN officials need to put an adult in charge to make sure there is no repeat of the screw-up that could have gotten someone hurt.