Bristol keeps growing and growing. Some risky moves and a little poor decision-making of late have caused embarrassment and controversy for all involved. No, I don’t mean the future Mrs. Levi Johnston, but rather the Connecticut home base of the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” From erroneous reports of attempted suicide to hours upon hours of repetitive talking heads, ESPN has lost much of its journalistic credibility and all of its quirky, basic cable originality that made it so appealing to viewers. Unfortunately, the ESPN empire has grown so large and dominant that sports fans have nowhere else to go.

It wasn’t always this way. When ESPN started in 1979, it filled airtime between “SportsCenters” with random international sports and college football games we would probably find nowadays on the Versus Network. In the ’80s, they started showing more professional games and grew enough to be purchased by ABC and a cookie company in 1984, but the emphasis on broadcasting sporting events and recapping with “SportsCenter” continued.

As the network added more high-profile sporting events, the audience and income of the network increased, but with more viewers came a lot more ESPN-manufactured entertainment. Joining “SportsCenter” on the programming list in the late ’80s and ’90s were nine sport-specific shows (think “Monday Night Countdown”) that were meant to recap and discuss games and news from the major sports.

With the turn of the century, ESPN added channels and more than doubled its airspace. In an effort to fill the void, eight debate-oriented shows (“Pardon the Interruption”), 26 original series (“Madden Nation”) and 11 original movies (“Junction Boys”) were brought on to fill the viewing schedules of ESPN’s massive, multi-channel media network. The network even got into book publishing, an awards show, a magazine, Spanish-language programming and even the telecommunications industry.

Undoubtedly, this expansion has been great for ESPN’s bottom line. It is the world’s most profitable cable channel, and Barron’s Magazine estimated in February of this year that the network and its businesses makes up to 40 percent of the massive Walt Disney Corporation’s total revenue.

While this growth has clearly benefited ESPN’s investors and parent companies, it has necessitated a dilution in the quality and accuracy of the network’s content. With ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNNEWS pumping out “new” stories all day every day, it has proved an understandably impossible task to keep every bit of new content as fresh, accurate and original as those old Olbermann-Berman “SportsCenters.”

When it comes to filling up time, you’d have to give ESPN an “A” for effort. In order to staff that slew of new programs, the network has brought in a score of “analysts.” Using my DVR to record every ESPN talk show, highlight show and “SportsCenter” this past Tuesday, I counted a total of 27 such talking heads who seemed to be on the ESPN payroll.

The problem with this many voices is that they can’t all be of Peter Gammons and John Clayton caliber.

Tuesday morning’s talk show had Kordell Stewart (the quarterback who spent the second half of his career backing up impressive names like Rex Grossman, Kyle Boller and Tommy Maddox) rather ironically critiquing future Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s performance against the Chargers.

Former running back Jamal Anderson then analyzed the running performance of LaDainian Tomlinson (who has twice the career yards and almost four times the touchdowns as Anderson).

Finally, unemployed and fired twice in three years, former coach Jim Fassel took a look at Bill Belichick’s scheming against the Dolphins.

Now, the ho-hum records of these “experts” don’t necessarily make them poor analysts, but ESPN does seem to have a general policy of recycling retired former players rather than using actual journalists.

You would think, with this wide-panel of contributors, ESPN would provide diverse and in-depth coverage, but as anyone who has watched “Around the Horn” and “PTI” back-to-back knows all too well, it is the same six or seven topics that are usually discussed ad nauseam. The top three topics on my recorded Tuesday – Lane Kiffin’s potential firing in Oakland, the likelihood of Brady Quinn replacing Derek Anderson in Cleveland and Matt Millen on the hot-seat in Detroit – were discussed at least 10 times each throughout the course of the day.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this is that both Kiffin and Quinn became non-stories by mid-week. Kiffin is still head coach for at least another week, and Anderson will start on Sunday. So ESPN analysts spent almost a collective hour of talk time discussing the ins and outs of events that didn’t even end up happening.

Along with repetitive coverage, the Worldwide Leader has made a habit in recent months of broadcasting stories as almost certainties that later prove to be untrue. The network all but guaranteed Lane Kiffin would be fired on Monday and even hyped up the press conference where he was expected to be canned, but five days later the Raiders coach still awaits the inevitable in Oakland.

ore dramatically, on the day of last season’s SEC Championship Game, “College Gameday” analyst Kirk Herbstreit reported that LSU coach Les Miles was headed to Michigan. This report was obviously untrue, and breaking news broadcast hours before the game that would decide the Tigers’ National Title hopes could have had major implications.

The problem with ESPN is that its virtual monopoly over sports coverage gives the network little incentive to avoid such mistakes in the future. LSU fans may not have Herbstreit on their list of favorite analysts, but where else can they go for college football coverage? Any economist will tell you competition is good for the consumer, but ESPN lacks even a nominal competitor to stay ahead of.

We can only hope that one day the network will really mess something up and get a much needed wake-up call. If not, we may spend the rest of our lives listening to Skip Bayless and Woody Paige give themselves aneurysms over the day’s newest non-story.

Jamie Leader is a senior in the College and can be reached at He hosts the sports radio show “Tournament Edition” on Georgetown Radio every Monday from noon to 2 p.m. FOLLOW THE LEADER appears in every other Friday issue of HOYA SPORTS.

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