Hosting a show featuring sports highlights and analysis seems like a near-impossible task during the COVID-19 sports shutdown. Yet ESPN has somehow managed to fill plenty of airtime with editions of SportsCenter during the past two months.
Under these circumstances, no SportsCenter anchor is probably more in the spotlight than Scott Van Pelt, who hosts a nightly 11 p.m. ET version of the show featuring him front and center. Currently, Van Pelt’s SportsCenter occupies what might be the most important slot on ESPN’s schedule, Sundays at 11 p.m. ET following showings of The Last Dance.
In an interview with CNN’s Frank Pallotta, Van Pelt explains that without sports, doing SportsCenter is a segment-by-segment process, especially when there’s not an event like The Last Dance, NFL draft and free agency news, or updates on postponed sports like the NBA to power the news cycle.
“What are we going to do in the A’s? That’s the first segment. Okay. We got that done. What are we doing in the B’s? All right. We trudged through that. Are we going to be able to make it to the second half hour? All right. I can’t believe it. We did an hour. What are we doing tomorrow? The truth of the matter is that there has been content to carry us. Whether it was the NFL Draft or typically some stories kicking around about the possibility of a league starting up again.”
The SportsCenter airing after the new Last Dance episodes serves essentially as a postgame show with Jackie MacMullan and Michael Wilbon providing analysis and insight from two reporters who covered Michael Jordan’s championship runs and that era of NBA basketball. Additionally, Van Pelt interviews a key figure from the episode, such as John Salley from the rival Detroit Pistons, Jordan’s 1993 NBA Finals adversary Charles Barkley, and former teammate B.J. Armstrong.
Van Pelt has been especially appreciative of athletes and celebrities being willing to share what they’re doing during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet he acknowledges that meaningful content will dry up if sports don’t come back in the next few months.
“I just don’t know how long we can continue to trot out, ‘hey, baseball said they might play in July.’ Okay, cool. ‘Hey, the NBA is going to reopen practice facilities tomorrow.’ I mean it feels like updates on a snail race. These things are moving along — and they ought to, I’m not saying we should be sprinting back to sports — but the daily observation of the snail moving down the road is just that.”
The rest of Van Pelt’s interview is worth a read, as he and Pallotta talk about how weird sports could be when they return and the role SportsCenter plays for its audience, even when there are no sporting events to cover.