ESPN continues to think outside of the box when it comes to guest anchors for SportsCenter. After celebrities Billy Crystal and Ken Jeong sat in the anchor's chair to decidedly mixed results, now an athlete is going to host SportsCenter for the first time.
Fresh off of his 6th NASCAR title, Jimmie Johnson will co-anchor the 6 PM ET SportsCenter. And look, there's even a clever hashtag!
— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) November 18, 2013
The guest SportsCenter anchor now looks like a trend we'll definitely see more of moving forward. SI.com reported the Ken Jeong SportsCenter ratings were up versus a typical Friday and ESPN was interested in having more celebrities sit at the anchor desk. And the ESPN promotional machine is firmly behind #JimmieOnSC with PR personnel flooding social media and a reminder every 7 minutes on ESPN airwaves. This is how ESPN is promoting the occasion:
"Tuesday night’s recipe is simple, yet untested. Take one part Stuart Scott, one part Billy Crystal. Add a handful of Chris Berman, and a pinch of Ken Jeong. The result: Television history, as six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson becomes the first athlete to guest host ESPN’s flagship news and information program SportsCenter."
“I don’t know if SportsCenter knows what they are getting themselves into,” Johnson joked. “It’s probably a good thing I’m there pretty much all day preparing. I’ve got some tough shoes to fill with Billy Crystal and Ken Jeong but I’ve met most of the anchors and I am really looking forward to becoming the first athlete to ever guest host SportsCenter.”
I'll remind you that Billy Crystal hosting SportsCenter involved childhood highlights of him playing baseball and conversations about his favorite Yankees players. Sports fans around the country were hanging off of their couches suspended in mid-air because of the excitement and suspense of it all.
I'm not crazy about the idea of celebrity SportsCenter anchors because it takes away from the sports news of the day and makes the show all about that guest anchor. What happens if breaking news hits about Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito and Jimmie Johnson is awkwardly sitting at the anchor desk silently like Andy Roddick during an NFL debate?
If ESPN wants to be the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in celebrity sports and entertainment, then go ahead and turn SportsCenter into OMG Insider and have fun with it. Bring in Ken Jeong and Jimmie Johnson and Bruce Jenner if you want. However, it's impossible to maintain the "worldwide leader in sports" mantle while handing over your flagship sports and highlights show to a celebrity for the day. At least Jimmie Johnson won't be there to sell Hangover Part III BluRays, though.
There's a number of other issues at play here as well with just how cozy ESPN will be with Johnson, an athlete they're charged with covering objectively. The lines between news and entertainment when it comes to ESPN's coverage of sports have never been blurrier. It's hard to tell whether Johnson will be there as an athlete, celebrity, or something in between. ESPN's focus on celebrity above anything else is only expanding and this is just another example – make no mistake about it, this is a ratings ploy. As more athletes host SportsCenter, the question will then turn to how ESPN will cover those athletes they now have an established working relationship with.
On the bright side, at least NASCAR fans can revel in the fact that at least ESPN's flagship show thinks their drivers are athletes as opposed to their other major current rights partners.