This week, Disney wanted to remind people that it owns ESPN as well as Star Wars and Marvel. To prove this point, the multi-billion dollar corporation decided to revamp its traditional basketball and baseball broadcasts as NBA Special Edition Presented by State Farm: Marvel’s Arena of Heroes, airing Monday on ESPN2, and a Star Wars-themed telecast for the Houston Astros vs. New York Yankees game airing Tuesday on ESPN. Both productions were a slog to watch, full of forced movie references from announcers, relentless ads for Disney+ shows, and gratuitous on screen graphics that distracted from the actual game. But more than anything, it proved that no marketing opportunity is too pandering, too shoehorned, and too half-assed for one of the most successful and ubiquitous media behemoths.
Billed as the “latest development in Marvel and ESPN’s long history of sports content collaboration,” Marvel’s Arena of Heroes basketball telecast of the Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans game was ambitious. Marketers at ESPN concocted a story where the Avengers are trying to recruit another superhero to fight unspecified bad guys so they look to the NBA’s talent pool. Players are judged by a new sports stat called “Marvel Hero Points,” which basically adds up a player's points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and then subtracts missed field goals, missed free throws and turnovers. Warriors’ player Draymond Green ultimately had the most “Hero Points” and was crowned Marvel’s “Hero of the Game.” ESPN kept calling Green “Marvel’s first champion,” which means there’s going to be more. “This is incredible,” Green said in a postgame interview. “I've got three kids, two that understand Marvel and they're watching. I was really excited about this game and I'm happy I won this.”
Over the course of the game, CGI renderings Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Panther would lurk over the court, comic-book-style captions would clog the screen when a player got possession of the ball, and graphics like “Hulk Smash!” or Captain America’s shield would burst onto the basket whenever a field goal was scored. ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco, former player Richard Jefferson, and Marvel personality Angélique Roché were the broadcast booth for the night, peppering in as many references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as humanly possible. Green makes a layup? How about Ruocco saying “On your left!” the popular line from Captain America that was repurposed to Avengers: Endgame. (They even spoiled Disney+’s new series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier). Thankfully, the comic-book-themed ESPN2 production was a complementary telecast to the traditional ESPN telecast. Normal people could still tune in to ESPN without having to figure out how “Hero Points” work.
Compared to the NBA broadcast, ESPN’s Tuesday “May the Fourth Be With You” Stars Wars production was the only available national broadcast of the Astros and Yankees game, rather than an optional telecast on a sister network. Probably because of this, it was remarkably more subdued: there were no weird in-game animations like a baseball bat as a lightsaber or a home run resulting in the outfield exploding like the Death Star (please ESPN, this is not a pitch). Right before the game, Sportscenter anchor Kevin Negandhi tried to shoehorn a Star Wars reference into the program saying, “I’m gonna go drive my Millennium Falcon!” to which his fellow host Elle Duncan replied, “Oh, are you a fan of Boba Fett?” And while there is nothing wrong with not knowing that it’s Han Solo who pilots the Millennium Falcon in those movies, it was funny to see sports personalities desperately try to adapt to the nerd stuff.
Really, the Star Wars-telecast seemed more like an ESPN attempt to humiliate its commentating team: play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech was dressed as Luke Skywalker, analyst Tim Kurkjian donned a Yoda mask and tunic, and commentator Eduardo Perez wore a terrifying Jawa costume. During the broadcast, Kurkjian was clearly struggling in the Yoda mask, which he wore under his microphone and sounded muffled for several innings. “I’m having a little trouble breathing,” said Kurkjian midway through the game, eventually scrapping the mask altogether. There were in-game tie-in segments like “Who said it: Dusty Baker or a Star Wars character?” and a bit where commentators and ESPN’s Clinton Yates, a Star Wars superfan who should have hosted, listed some former players who sounded like characters from the films: Erick Aybar, Luke Walker, and Sebastian Vader.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened on a major sports broadcast. Back in the fall, Nickelodeon, which is owned by ViacomCBS, aired a special alternate telecast of an NFL Wild Card game between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans saints, complete with a kid in the broadcast booth, slime graphics, and Spongebob Squarepants tie-ins. Having a 15-year-old commentator exclaim “That is epic!” when digital green slime drenches an NFL endzone after a touchdown is just a lot funnier than an ESPN baseball commentator trying to make a joke that former MLB sibling pitchers Bob and Ken Forsch have a last name that sounds like “Force.” That one-off football game worked better because it aired as an alternative on a kids network, explained football’s rules in a way that a normal CBS broadcast wouldn’t, and leaned into its childlike excess. With this week’s ESPN games, it’s difficult to tell who they wanted to appeal to.
Obviously, these crossovers were meant to be a fun chance to switch it up and allow Marvel fans to check out the NBA as well as Star Wars nerds to get into the MLB or vice versa. Because professional sports and these movies are extremely popular, a lot of people surely enjoyed the experiment like the great basketball writer Tom Ziller, who wrote in his newsletter: “Regardless of the motivations, regardless of our collective cynicism around corporate brand synergy, lightening up the basketball discourse with some goofy ideas is something I hope the league and its broadcast partners continue to embrace.” While there's no problem with presenting sports, an already extremely fun thing, in a lighthearted and goofy way, it should be better than a lowest common denominator advertisement for a conglomerate.