Last night, ESPN2 televised the inaugural Slow Pitch Showdown softball game between the USA team and the USA Futures team as part of the network's coverage of the World Cup of Softball. Yes, such a thing exists, and it was shown across the country on ESPN2. Although the thought of televising a slow pitch softball game with tens of fans in the stands seems highly dubious at first, the game itself was fascinating. Here were a bunch of guys who looked like they belonged in any local beer-guzzling slow pitch softball league mashing balls like they were Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in the summer of '98. The finish didn't let anyone down either - the Futures team held on for the 38-37 victory with the final out coming in a play at the plate.
But more than anything, it was a throwback to the glory days of ESPN when the network survived on sports like Australian Rules Football and the America's Cup and truly was the worldwide leader. There was a time you could count on ESPN to televise almost anything from the world of sports. The slow pitch softball game on ESPN2 was like a breath of fresh air away from the same ol' same ol' we're consigned to in today's sports media. For a weekday summer night in late June, it was actually entertaining.
As these strange things often do, it got us thinking... what other non-traditional sports should ESPN televise to give its viewers and fans a more diverse array of programming options? Let's be honest, there's only so much we can hear about the NFL and LeBron James on debate shows. So let's find a solution! Why can't ESPN go back to its roots and show Aussie Rules football, sumo, and more! We had a lot of great suggestions on Twitter last night and have compiled our list of the Top 10 random sports ESPN should televise...
Handball is one of those Summer Olympics sports that always grabs your attention whenever it's on the screen. Its fast pace is a natural for American sports fans as are the crazy plays where there always seems to be someone flying through the air. There are some elements of football, basketball, and hockey involved and the rules aren't so hard to follow. If that fails though, just embed trampolines on the court, move the net ten feet in the air, and we'll invent SlamHandball. Now that would be a winner.
Who wouldn't love to sit down on a Wednesday night in the summer and be able to take a trip down memory lane to high school gym class? After all, there's only so many times the movie Dodgeball can represent the sport. Luckily for all of us, ESPN could just as easily pick up the National Dodgeball League. That's right, such a thing as professional dodgeball does exist! Of course, the entire season is contested over four days, but that could still be hours of programming! If that fails, the possibilities of a dodgeball tournament featuring ESPN personalities is promising.
No, we're not talking about weird Sport Science segments, or normal peopple wearing ridiculous suits, but the real thing from Japan! We can't be the only ones who yearn for the days when Larry Beil would bring the bashos to the American sporting public. There was always something so right about the way he would announce the arrival of "A-KE-BO-NO" to the dohyo. There's something very mesmerizing about seeing extremely large men trying to push each other out of a small circle.
7) Hurling/Gaelic Football
The Gaelic games are the national sports of Ireland and may be the most foreign to American sports fans of any sport on the list. Hurling and Gaelic football are very similar in terms of the field, number of players, and scoring. Hurling uses a smaller ball and hurling sticks (think a cross between a lacrosse and hockey stick) to move the ball around the field and score. Gaelic football features a larger round ball (almost like a volleyball). Both are fast paced, although hurling is believed to be the fastest team sport in the world. Both feature plenty of action, although the learning curve for the American audience may be a bit steeper than some of the other sports on our list. And even if you don't quite get it, it's Irish, so embrace a bit of the culture and enjoy.
Ultimate frisbee has been bubbling under the surface at colleges and universities as one of the next big things. The selling point for ESPN would be easy - who hasn't thrown a frisbee before? Ultimate frisbee is a rather simple game and is made for television because of one thing - hucks and insane diving catches. Ok, maybe that's two things. Still though, if football is going to become extinct in 50 years because of concussions, this might as well replace it...
ESPN tried one foray into the darts world... and failed, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try again. Right now, NBC Sports Network televises darts replays in the early morning hours hosted by Arlo White, who also does their soccer coverage. Watching mostly old, overweight men that make poker players look like decathletes fling arrows at a stationary target does not seem like an enthralling viewing experience. But au contraire. The skill and precision of these guys is off the charts. But what really sets darts apart is the insane atmosphere that defies logic. All the big stars in darts have their own nicknames (Phil "The Power" Taylor, Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock, "Jackpot" Adrian Lewis) and entrance music (Raymond van Barneveld walks on to Eye of the Tiger) like they are professional wrestlers or rock stars. Then, crowd a few thousand well hydrated Brits and some over-the-top commentating and you've got quite the television recipe.
4) T20 Cricket
When most people think of cricket, they think of polite Englishmen playing a "Test Match" over several days between servings of tea. Most often, these test matches are impossible for anyone not intimately familiar with cricket to follow. Luckily, for fans around the world without a days-long attention span, a new version of cricket called T20 (short for twenty-twenty) was created specifically for TV back in 2003 that condenses an entire match into a baseball like 3 1/2 hours... unless you're the Yanks & Sawx of course. Overall, the T20 game has brought a younger audience to a more "explosive" brand of cricket, and could actually find a niche audience in the U.S. if given a chance.
Rugby is a sport that is slowly on the rise in the United States. Even The Guardian in the UK has begun to take notice about the growth of the sport, even though the U.S. isn't on the same planet in a competitive sense with nations like England, South Africa, and the famous All Blacks of New Zealand. Much of the momentum here in the U.S. has focused on developing Rugby Sevens, a faster-paced, but scaled-down version of the sport looking ahead to its inclusion in the 2016 Olympics. However, the full 15 man game is the truer form. Rugby posseses many of the same traits that make football the most popular sport in the country. It's got heavy hitting, electric scoring, and interesting tactics. Now would be the perfect time for the entire sport to grow with its introduction to the Olympics in 2016. At those Olympics, the defending champs will actually be... the United States!
Yes, it's a Canadian sport, but with the success of the English Premier League and other international sports, why not make a habit of televising one of the most popular sports from north of the border? During the Winter Olympics, curling is often one of the most popular sports and gets a cult following on CNBC. Whether it's the novelty, or the significant strategy involved, I've never been bored when watching a curling match unfold. Televising the major Canadian tournaments would be a nice way to keep curling around more often than every four years. Just don't allow John Shuster anywhere near the hog line!
1) Australian Rules Football
There's no actual evidence to back this up, but we're convinced Aussie Rules football is the most popular of the obscure sports that have ever been telecast on ESPN. In fact, Aussie Rules was one of the cornerstones of the network in its early days back in the 80s. Since then, the network has televised highlights and important matches sporadically, recently losing rights to the subscription channel (ugh) Fox Soccer Plus. Aussie Rules combines all of the things we love about American sports (physicality, high scoring, athleticism) with enough quirky rules to make the game somehow familiar and exotic at the same time. It's simply one of the most exciting, fun to watch sports on the planet. Combine that with the over-the-top announcing, a relatively low learning curve, and history with the network, and there's no reason ESPN shouldn't have a hit if they can get the rights back. Please ESPN, if there's one obscure sport to bring back, it's this one!
Suggestions that just missed the cut: Ping pong, jai alai, badminton, sepak takraw, mini golf, lumberjack games, water polo, and of course... hockey.