If you’ve read this column for any length of time, you know that I'm often bewildered by the way ESPN shows tennis, yet hides it at the same time. The network has spent a significant amount of money over the last two decades buying the rights to the four Grand Slams. Its biggest, and perhaps final, coup on that front came last year, when it secured the U.S. Open from first ball to last with an 11-year deal worth $770 million. Despite that commitment of time and cash, though, ESPN still covers and promotes tennis sparingly, almost grudgingly. There are no analysis shows devoted to it, and few commercials for the channel’s upcoming tournament coverage. Even during the majors, highlights on SportsCenter are sparse.
So when I read yesterday that the Worldwide Leader had signed up John McEnroe to do more work for them, I thought the channel had finally come around to my way of thinking. McEnroe is perhaps the one point of intersection between the American tennis fan and the general American sports fan. He's a bona fide celebrity, and he’s at least perceived to be an authority on the sport today. The fact that McEnroe is famous for never doing or reading any research as a tennis commentator, and that he basically wings it on air, wouldn’t matter. People like to hear Johnny Mac, and he’s good at winging it. He was never really big on tennis practice, either.
The only problem with the deal is that McEnroe hasn’t been hired to talk about the sport he plays. He will, as ESPN’s press release says, “serve as an analyst on SportsCenter discussing major topics of all sorts,” and will “make regular appearances on ESPN2’s Olbermann and on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike.” In short, this deal will have him “expanding his role beyond tennis.” (italics are mine)
McEnroe will also be heard on the ESPN Radio affiliate in New York. He told the New York Daily News, “Radio is something I really want to pursue.” That sounds promising, though I’m not 100 percent convinced by that sentence. Between his senior tour events all over the world, his commentating at the Grand Slams, and his junior academy in New York, can he find the time to become a sports jock as well?
As far as tennis goes, the deal with McEnroe sounds like another way for ESPN to notice the sport while also burying it. The network will take the the game’s most recognizable American star—and have him talk about anything but that game. McEnroe is a knowledgeable fan of New York sports teams. He goes to Knicks games, and he can talk about the Yankees, Mets, and Rangers. He also played soccer in prep school, and I’ve even heard him discourse intelligently about cricket. As a pundit and interviewer, though, he'll likely need some work. McEnroe is fine in a tennis booth, but in 2004 he was the host of a talk show on CNBC that twice garnered a rating of 0.0 and was canceled after six months.
Here’s McEnroe reviewing McEnroe’s lowlights when he learned it was going off the air. Give the guy credit for bouncing back from that humbling experience.
As for his new gig, McEnroe, who turned 55 this weekend, doesn’t seem exactly sure what he’ll be doing yet.
“Hopefully we can put our heads together over time,” he told the News, “and figure out a way to get this done. This [the new contract] is a pretty long one. We can figure out what best suits them and best suits me.”
Whether he’s playing it or talking about it, the thing that has always best suited John McEnroe is tennis. In the years since his retirement, he’s tried various other projects: He owned an art gallery, played in a rock band, and hosted two TV shows. That’s all in the past now, but his tennis career is still going strong. Hours before his 55th birthday, McEnroe won a PowerShares Series senior event in Indianapolis, beating 43-year-old Jim Courier in a one-set final. McEnroe seems to enjoy playing more now than he did when he was 25 and No. 1 in the world. There can be little question that he’s the best 50-and-over player in history.
So why not have him talk about tennis? Why not use his celebrity and authority to promote the sport? Hopefully, as his role develops at ESPN, he’ll go back to his roots and talk more about what he knows and loves best. The network’s viewers may not want to see highlights of Stanislas Wawrinka or Dominika Cibulkova or Juan Martin del Potro, but I’m guessing they’ll listen to what Johnny Mac has to say.