According to the warranty, it’s time for an ESPN 50,000-episode tune up.
That usually means replacing the struts and checking for gas leaks. Rotating the hosts. Recalibrate the bearings. Check for loose deposits.
Yet ESPN says it will be a relatively low-key event when it presents what has been determined to be its 50,000th episode of “SportsCenter,” at 3 p.m. Thursday.
The only thing planned is having Chris Berman read a piece that he did on the late Tom Mees (linked here) reflecting back on when they did the 10,000th episode sometime in the mid-’80s.
“That’ll be the only mention,” ESPN senior vice president and executive producer of “SportsCenter” Mark Gross said. “That’ll be it.”
When has ESPN ever done something monumental in an understated way?
Part of this show will revisit the first episode on Sept. 7, 1979, with George Grande’s opening.
“We didn’t know if we’d last 50 days, 50 months, let alone 50,000 ESPN ‘SportsCenters’,” Grande said recently.
The other part should be a moment of silence to let viewers reflect on what this means some 33 years later.
It means that “SportsCenter” is the most televised show in the history of broadcast TV. Or cable TV. Or any soap opera, news magazine or test pattern.
“To me, ‘SportsCenter’ is a show that our viewers have complete ownership of,” said Gross. “I don’t know any other show out there that can say the same thing. The viewers’ expectations of what should be on it, the quality of the show, the people and the highlights are exceptionally high – which is great. That philosophy hasn’t changed all that much since the start. The landscape may have changed dramatically, but we’re still do it the same way today.”
Anchors have come and gone. A few have stayed. Graphics have been refined. Highlights are more than just high-def, but also YouTube viral.
Copy cats on Fox, CNN or something called CNN-SI have also tried to challenge for the same kind of audience, but they’ve disappeared. Local sportscasts have all but shrunk in importance, and definitely in time allotted per half-hour.
Instead, ESPN estimates 18 million a day watch an episode of “SportsCenter.”
“The goal has always been to make ‘SportsCenter’ where ever and whenever sports fans want it,” said Gross. “Whether it’s TV, phone, iPad . . . the ultimate goal is as the world changes every day to get it to viewers. Beyond that, it’s important to personalize it. If you just want the Dodgers, Angels, Lakers and Clippers, they’ll ask, ‘How can I do that’?”
How ESPN has done it all these years later is place “SportsCenter” on more than just four times a day on one channel. It’s everywhere, in every form. Still promoted in creative ways (see John Clayton’s latest version) with a formula as basic as apple juice.
“The bread and butter is still the highlights,” said Gross.
Highlights that, these days, may have already been seen by millions before they even get on the air.
“When something happens in a game now, the highlight can be on Twitter within five minutes,” said Scott Van Pelt, an anchor since 2001.
“To watch this all grow from afar is thrilling,” said Charley Steiner, the Dodgers’ radio play-by-play man who most notably anchored “SportsCenter” from 1988 to 2002. “What has changed 14 years later? Only everything. … It’s mindboggling to think back to when I got there and where it is now. The only thing we share is the name and the dissemination of information.”
One of the major expansions of the “SportsCenter” brand was opening an ESPN studio across the street from Staples Center two years ago, and having the 11 p.m. PT/2 a.m. ET “SportsCenter” emanate from there.
“It’s made us better, more well rounded certainly,” said Gross. “Some believe we still have an East Coast bias, but we have a team of people working in L.A. to ensure we don’t have that. We’re always talking to them about the time, about the show, what they’re producing and what they’re watching. It’s made us far more diverse with having a show based in L.A.”
As for Steiner, no matter how long he remains in the Dodgers’ organization, some still think he’s an ESPN employee because of that “SportsCenter” brand attached to him.
“I never had any intention on being on TV; I still consider myself a radio guy who had a 14-year diversion,” said Steiner. “I just gave it a shot (at ESPN). I had no idea how long it would last or what the impact would be.
“I will say that it’s also astonishing how many young athletes now, and even some fans, have no idea I ever worked at ‘SportsCenter’.”