It’s been a trying few months for consumers of sports media, reckoning with the slow death of a content empire faced with its inevitable demise amid mounting pressure from cord-cutting, AI and an increasing emphasis on streaming. ESPN is shrinking before our eyes, doubling down on its efforts to win the broadcast rights arms race while losing sight of the formula that made it so successful, a first-of-its-kind powerhouse capable of moving mountains.
Some of those factors are out of ESPN’s control, harsh realities of a failing industry that no longer sees journalism as essential, playing fast and loose with debate shows peddling contrived takes, provocative rants pandering to the viral masses and pointed coverage (the company’s East Coast bias is well-documented) framed as insider reporting. It’s not the most sophisticated blueprint, undermined by audience fatigue and a newfound philosophy treating talent as expendable (June’s mass exodus claimed Max Kellerman, Jalen Rose, Jeff Van Gundy and Suzy Kolber, among other high-profile departures), pawns in a high-stakes chess match pitting the newsroom—or what’s left of it—against profit-minded executives obsessing over quarterly projections.
Downsizing initiatives like these aren’t unique to ESPN or even sports media, accepted as the cost of doing business in the digital age. Is it ruthless and dehumanizing? Sure. But what isn’t in today’s corporate hellscape, a bleak dystopia poisoned by groupthink and other threats to self-expression, where individualism and creativity go to die?
As we lament our helplessness to reverse ESPN’s current trajectory, spiraling toward irrelevance in a saturated content space, it’s natural to be nostalgic, longing for a time when Bristol was the epicenter of the sports universe. Highlights were steering the ship back then, positioning SportsCenter as a cultural phenomenon, a star vehicle propelling anchors Scott Van Pelt and Chris Berman to the height of their profession.
Think of all the names and personalities that rose to prominence on SportsCenter, adding to the pop-culture lexicon with indelible catchphrases like “en fuego” (Dan Patrick’s handiwork), “Yahtzee!” (a Kenny Mayne original) and “cooler than the other side of the pillow,” the latter quip coined by the late Stuart Scott. Keith Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Bob Ley, Steve Levy, Charley Steiner, Linda Cohn, Brian Kenny, Steve Berthiaume, John Anderson and Rich Eisen all anchored the desk at one time or another, belonging to a proud fraternity of Bristol-based newscasters offering a fresh perspective on sports, delivering the highlights with remarkable poise and candor.
There was something special about those early SportsCenters, a certain indescribable quality later incarnations of the show have failed to replicate, lacking the cleverness and performative flair of their late 90s predecessors. Before we could binge our favorite prestige offerings on Hulu or Max, we had SportsCenter to get us through the day, strapping in for repeat viewings while reveling in the inventiveness and on-air chemistry of memorable duos like iconic late-night tandem Stan Verrett and Neil Everett.
“Trying to be a SportsCenter anchor, I can’t imagine how difficult that would be [now],” said Patrick in response to Everett’s recent ouster, letting his contract expire after 23 years at “The Mothership.” “It’s the end of an era when it comes to those SportsCenter teams.”
As the network’s flagship property and arguably its most recognized brand, SportsCenter is still a destination, though its cultural footprint is dwindling, rendered obsolete by social media sites that share scores and highlights the moment they happen.
“You already know who won the game by the time we come on. You probably have seen the highlights on your phone. So the reason to tune into that show is to see what kind of spin the two people, whoever that may be, can put on it,” Everett expressed in an interview with Jon “Stugotz” Weiner of The Dan Le Batard Show. “What are they going to tell me that I don’t know? How are they going to make me laugh? What are they going to say that’s memorable?”
“When we were doing SportsCenter in the mid-90s, you didn’t have social media, you didn’t know the results. And if you knew the results, you weren’t able to have access to the highlights, so you tuned into SportsCenter,” Patrick agreed. “It’s changed so much.”
Like all of us grappling with the breakneck pace of new technology, SportsCenter has had to evolve, eschewing highlights for talking heads shepherding the show to its next commercial break. As you’d expect from a company pumping all its resources into outbidding rival networks for exclusive broadcast rights, the show’s subject matter has skewed increasingly toward sports and leagues that air their games on ESPN, blurring the line between thoughtful analysis and sponsored content. For instance, the NHL was largely ignored until ESPN acquired its broadcast rights, a convenient narrative shift after years of relegating hockey to the margins, an unwanted house guest confined to a spare bedroom with squeaky floorboards and a faulty window that won’t quite shut.
It’s not that SportsCenter isn’t well-produced or even that its viewership has stagnated. In fact, ratings are up with SVP’s late-night edition experiencing considerable year-over-year growth. Despite this, SportsCenter isn’t nearly the launching pad it once was, lacking the cache and cultural resonance of past eras when highlights were as sacred as ancient scrolls carefully preserved for centuries. Only a handful of current hosts—Randy Scott, Elle Duncan, Kevin Negandhi and Hannah Storm—have graduated to mainstream recognition, speaking to the show’s waning influence in a crowded sports landscape.
With so much content resting at our fingertips, it’s easy to see why SportsCenter would fall through the cracks, an aging product beset by a network that has very clearly shifted its focus away from live programming, joining Amazon, Apple, Discovery and others in prioritizing broadcast rights. It all feels very stuffy and corporate, subdued and neutered relative to the captivating stage presence of stars like Mayne and Scott, distinct personalities who made SportsCenter appointment viewing. Millennials surely remember the adrenaline rush of seeing their favorite team or player appear on SportsCenter, waiting in feverish anticipation of whatever impeccably-crafted one-liner was waiting on the teleprompter.
Despite the challenges described by Everett, clip shows can still be successful as evidenced by Quick Pitch, a reliably breezy recap of the previous night’s games on MLB Network. If a SportsCenter renaissance were to happen, it would require, above all, smart writing, breathing new life into the dormant highlight genre with tight scripts punctuated by crisp wordplay and punchy dialogue. Striking the right tone is just as important, offering a welcome reprieve from the abrasive, argumentative stylings of debate shows like First Take. What made SportsCenter, at its peak, so enthralling was its deft balancing act, oscillating between poignant and deeply silly. Commercials from that era effortlessly capture the irreverent humor SC became known for, highlighting the charming eccentricity of its offbeat hosts.
ESPN, by all accounts, has no plans to fundamentally change SportsCenter, satisfied in the network’s pivot away from highlights, content to let marquee events like the NBA Finals, College Football Playoff and early-round Masters coverage do the heavy lifting. Maybe that’s for the best. The last time ESPN attempted an overhaul of that magnitude it resulted in a revamped set but little else in the way of tangible improvement, mistaking a fresh backdrop and better studio equipment for quality. There was also the ill-fated “Six” experiment with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, a pairing that lasted all of 13 months following Hill’s vocal criticism of then-president Donald Trump (which would facilitate her departure from the network a year later).
SportsCenter, in all likelihood, will never be the draw it once was, but it doesn’t have to be an afterthought either, a forgotten vessel aboard a sinking ship headed for the bottom of the proverbial ocean. The SportsCenter brand is well worth protecting, a treasured relic of a time when highlights were king and the anchors who read them were treated as royalty, triumphant conquerors who swept us off our feet with humor and gravitas in equal proportion. Maybe that ship has sailed, never to return, but hopefully there’s a life raft in sight, a rescue boat waiting to ferry SportsCenter back to dry land.