There’s a lot that goes into ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2016, and a lot of challenges that it’s facing. We saw competitor FS1 ditch highlights for a more late-night, comedy-focused show, and SC itself has evolved beyond just highlights to something more centered on anchors’ personalities, discussions with analysts of why certain things happened, and popular recurring segments.
ESPN senior vice-president (SportsCenter and News) Rob King and anchor Scott Van Pelt recently sat down with Digiday’s Sahil Patel at the Digiday Video Anywhere summit in Austin to talk about SC’s changes over the years and what’s ahead. You can listen to their full 20-minute discussion on Digiday’s page here, but two things King said particularly stand out, as shown by their transcription:
Thanks to sports calendars, SportsCenter can plan cross-screen experiences in advance
“We can see signature moments coming,” says King. “We have no excuse not to plan.” Unlike elections and the weather, the sports world follows a pre-set events calendar so that producers can plan for experiences across screens months — even years — in advance.
The 24/7 news environment forces SportsCenter to create extra content around its shows
“We are trying to create ecosystems around these shows,” explains King. Lifestyle or behind-the-scenes content, like Usain Bolt playing pingpong at the SportsCenter headquarters, goes a long way in keeping viewers watching.
The planning point is an interesting one. Yes, they don’t necessarily know what particular MLB or NBA game will produce the best highlights on a given night, or what the breaking news will be, but you can come up with a good sense of what SportsCenter will be covering based on the date.
That allows for a lot of preparation, which is notable when you consider how the show’s gone to more analyst discussions; planning can help them know which nights are good nights to have particular analysts on the show. King’s also right on the “signature moments”: they can be thinking about their Super Bowl or NBA Finals plans long before they have to execute them. Again, that speaks to how SC is evolving well beyond just highlights.
The lifestyle/behind-the-scenes discussion is also notable, and King’s idea of creating “ecosystems” is a good one. Behind-the-scenes content can help increase awareness of the overall SC brand; having Bolt play ping-pong on the SC set creates not just a video ESPN can distribute, but might also get people thinking “Oh, SportsCenter, I might watch that later.” (This is also the idea behind the funny, long-running “This Is SportsCenter” commercials.)
Special behind-the-scenes glimpses from anchors on social media can help too, as can those anchors’ overall engagement with their audience. In a more personality-focused era, people are more likely to tune in to a show if they connect with the host; Van Pelt’s show in particular seems to be finding some success along those lines. SportsCenter isn’t the same as it’s always been, and this conversation shows that; it’s not an easy time to be running a nightly sports show, but King and his coworkers are clearly looking for some different ways to keep the show relevant, and they seem to be finding some success.