Tucked into a press release ostensibly about Stephen A. Smith’s role on SportsCenter during the NBA Finals, ESPN shared an interesting update about the status of its 6 p.m. SportsCenter show. According to the network, ratings for the program, which has undergone an overhaul in recent months with the departure of hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, were up 9 percent year-over-year in April, after increasing 4 percent in March.
“The 6 p.m. SportsCenter has focused on including breaking news as well as an emphasis on ‘setting the table’ for the night in sports,” ESPN vice president of network content David Roberts said in the release. “The response from viewers has been fantastic, as April’s increases indicated an appetite for coverage of the biggest stories in sports.”
It’s hard not to read ESPN’s statement Thursday as a shot at Hill and Smith, whose version of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter show became the most polarizing program on the network after its February 2017 debut. While some viewers enjoyed the hosts’ irreverence, others felt their show strayed too far from SportsCenter’s conventions, in terms of both format and content. Hill left SC6 in January after executive Norby Williamson began to reorient it around news and highlights, while Smith was pulled the following month. The 6 p.m. show is now hosted by a rotating cast of anchors and more closely resembles a traditional SportsCenter production.
In an interview with Awful Announcing in March, Williamson said the discussion-based show Hill and Smith had developed simply did not fit the 6 p.m. time slot.
“When we went with the Six we didn’t really do our due diligence there,” Williamson said. “I think it got away from us a bit with Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele.”
Now, after a couple months of improved ratings, ESPN seems to be declaring that Michael and Jemele were indeed the problem at 6 p.m. and that the evening SportsCenter is now fixed.
Since leaving SportsCenter, Hill has settled in as a writer for The Undefeated, while Smith does not have a defined role post-SC6. It’s hard to imagine either of them enjoys seeing ESPN gloat about how their former show has done without them, but sometimes that’s how it goes.