ESPN attempts to revitalize SportsCenter with Van Pelt solo spin
Upon launching its network two years ago, Fox Sports 1 debuted Fox Sports Live, a SportsCenter competitor that mixed traditional highlights delivered by two offbeat Canadian imports, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, and an athlete panel discussing the hot button issues of the day. Executives at Fox Sports boasted that the panel would be a “fresh, unique perspective to the sports news of the day, creating engaging and entertaining television." It was rarely any of those things. The show has since returned to a more traditional highlight show and is far more watchable. It also reaffirms a truism for sports television this decade:
Reinventing the sports highlight show has proven to be Sisyphean enterprise.
Now comes an attempt by SportsCenter to recalibrate its long-standing brand in an era where the show generally needs a strong lead-in to get mega-ratings. No doubt SportsCenter is still a vital part of the sports TV diet but it’s no longer the absolute destination show it once was. Why? There are too many other options outside of linear television to see sports highlights, including social media. Declining numbers for SportsCenter are also an inevitability in 2015 with increased competition and the growing number of cord-cutters from cable television.
That’s the backdrop for a new SportsCenter exercise that debuts Monday night. Amid much promotional fanfare, following the conclusion of what will be a huge lead-in with Ohio State-Virginia Tech, ESPN debuts a new solo SportsCenter hosted by longtime talent Scott Van Pelt. The show will air weeknights at midnight ET and while there will be highlights and other traditional things associated with SportsCenter, the Van Pelt edition will also offer commentary from the host, guest interviews, even a segment that highlights the gambling interests of a game. The show’s first guest has already been announced and it’s an interesting one: Dan Patrick, one of the stars of ESPN in the 1990s, who left the network on bitter terms and has since gone to post-Bristol success.
Clearly, there are only a few people ESPN would commit to building a solo SportsCenter around. Van Pelt signed a multi-year contract last year before ESPN started tightening its belt. “I look at it from the standpoint that they extended my deal and gave me a long contract in this day of belt-tightening that I read about it,” Van Pelt said. “I count myself very fortunate given the climate. I look at my contract as an endorsement that they have faith this will work.”
Over the last 12 months SportsCenter has been tinkering with its infrastructure, which is why you have seen more SportsCenter remotes and why someone like Stephen A. Smith has been given free reign to opine on nearly every sport. Now comes a designated personality-driven hour.
Will this work? Well, let’s ask Van Pelt.
“I’m an adult and so are many of the viewers and we will approach it that way,” Van Pelt said. “I’m not going to talk down to you, I have a sincere enthusiasm for what we get to do and I think that will translate. I think it will work because they have put me in a position where if it does not I would be surprised. I’m not going to bulls--- you.”
Van Pelt told ESPN management that he would not be interested in doing a solo show without a certain group of behind the scenes people including Tom DeCorte, a well-regarded SportsCenter producer, and Steve Coughlin, a former producer of Van Pelt’s radio show. Van Pelt said he wanted people he trusted, would make him better, challenge him, and most importantly, “call me out on my bulls--- and challenge me.”
For the past month, Van Pelt and his production team have had hours-long show meetings where they took the topics of the day and put together theoretical run-downs for the show.
“I think the biggest challenge is consistently producing memorable content daily that stands out from all the other viewing options people have,” DeCorte said. “I think we can meet that challenge for two reasons. First, we have the right host. Scott has a unique ability to take a story using his intelligence and wit and present it in a way others don’t. Second, we have the best staff of any show I’ve worked on. We have a group of highly motivated people who not only enhance SVP’s ideas, but challenge him to look at things from other points of view.”
• DEITSCH: College football TV analysts weigh in on 2015 season, more
DeCorte, who has produced the 11 p.m. SportsCenter for years, said the particular challenges for Van Pelt’s show are different because of the single anchor format. “Scott has always had his co-anchor to bounce things off of and involve in what he’s doing,” DeCorte said. “I think establishing a regular cast of contributors to the show that appear on a consistent basis will be important.”
I asked Van Pelt if a viewer could like his solo version of SportsCenter if they didn't like him on the air.
“Probably not,” he said. “If you think I am smug or snarky or just don't like me, then maybe not. It’s like ice cream or music. You would not listen to a singer if you did not like how they sung and you would not eat ice cream if you did not like how it tastes.”
Something Van Pelt did on his radio show and something you’ll see much more of on sports TV over the coming months is a focus on gambling spreads. Van Pelt said ESPN management knows what his intention is regarding gambling segments.
“My contention is this: It is 2015 and the wink and nod is silly,” Van Pelt said. “People still get giddy when Al Michaels makes a gambling reference or Brent Musburger does it …You don’t have to wink and nod about this. We are all grownups. If you bet on the game, you do, and if you don’t, you don’t. There may be some people who say you should not be talking about gambling and I say: You should understand the landscape. Draft Kings will be spending more money advertising on television this year than McDonald’s. What is that? Daily fantasy? Is that gambling? The whole landscape is such that rather than talk vaguely about something, I am just going to talk directly about it. No one has said no but I will be interested to see when we do a highlight specifically saying, if you gave 8½ in the Clippers game, here is how you took it in the shorts, will there be pushback?”
Added DeCorte: “As a producer, how do you best show something like bad beats to the audience? I wouldn’t say our show is gambling focused. It will be one of the many segments of the show we use to tell stories. It’s one of the ways Scott sees the sports world and I think there are fun stories to be told there. I think when presenting things like bad beats, the key is the storytelling. If you tell someone a good story, they will always be compelled to listen, even if it was a subject they may not have had familiarity with at the beginning of the story. For those who have ever had money on a game, every single one of those people has a great story of how they won or lost. That’s something I think we can tap into.”
Van Pelt said ESPN management has not given him a ratings level to hit or said whether a ratings increase or decrease will mean success or failure. As an example of why ESPN management is searching for areas to get upticks in ratings, the fine editors at sportstvratings.com forwarded the following info: The 11 p.m. SportsCenter window (roughly 11 p.m. to midnight ET) has averaged 606,000 viewers in 2015 for show dates between July 20 and Aug 27, down from 635,000 viewers in 2014 using a similar timeframe (July 21 to Aug 28.) SportsTVratings.com used Nielsen averaging methodology (weighted based on telecast durations) rather than a straight average. For his part, Van Pelt said he can’t focus on viewership numbers.
“The biggest mistake people in TV make is deciding if a show was good or bad based on the number of people that turn up to watch it,” Van Pelt said. “I can remember doing the 6 p.m. SportsCenter once and one of the shows that got a really high rating had to do with a tragic circumstance where a pitcher for the Orioles had died in spring training. I remember thinking to myself does this mean if we have a tragic spring training death every day we are doing a good job? Or was it circumstances that conspired that many people watched that night? I can’t be beholden to a printout every day saying this is what it was. I hope this doesn’t sound corny because I mean it sincerely: If we have fun and I can approach it the same way I did radio where I am authentic to me and interests me and present it that way, I will go home at 1 a.m. and think that was a fun show. That’s success to me.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest sports media stories.
1. Here are three things that have separated ESPN’s College GameDay from other college football studio shows: The authentic on-campus setting; the chemistry between quality anchors and quality analysts; the often-brilliant work from ESPN’s feature producers. On Saturday ESPN aired a piece on Alabama junior kicker Adam Griffith, who most sports fans know as the kicker from Auburn’s famous “Kick Six” play in the 2013 Iron Bowl. But Griffith’s backstory is remarkable. He grew up as an orphan in Poland before a Georgia couple adopted him when he was 10. For a piece that aired Saturday on GameDay, ESPN’s cameras journeyed back to Poland with Griffith where he reunited with his birth parents. I cannot recommend watching it enough.
If you watch the piece, you can see clearly that the budget had significant costs that a GameDay feature normally would not have. To the credit of GameDay management, they invested in the project and the result was something that makes GameDay stand out amid all other studio shows. How did the piece come together? On Sunday I emailed reporter Gene Wojciechowski and producer Scott Harves for some background.
Last October, ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach sent Wojciechowski a link to a Tuscaloosa News piece on Griffith written by D.C. Reeves. After reading the piece, Wojciechowski made a call to Alabama to get more background and eventually pitched the idea to Lee Fitting, the head of GameDay, as well as those in ESPN’s Features group. Had Alabama reached the national championship game, there was talk of trying to do a quick turnaround between the semis and final. But Bama lost, which proved to be a blessing for the piece. In February, Wojciechowski flew to Tuscaloosa to meet with Griffith and several Alabama sports media officials.
“It was just a chance for me to introduce myself, ask if he'd be interested in sharing his story with us, address any questions or concerns he or Bama might have,” Wojciechowski said. “I wanted him to come with us to Poland, but before I could mention it, he brought up that possibility. I told him to discuss it with [his adoptive parents] Tom and Michelle. I later called the Griffiths and made a similar introduction. A week or so later, Adam said he'd do the story, but wanted to know if his adoptive parents could join us on the trip. So we made the arrangements, made sure everything was cool with Bama's compliance department and the NCAA. Later that spring we made separate trips to Calhoun, Ga. [Griffith’s home] and Tuscaloosa for on-camera interviews and then in early May we all met in Berlin and made our way to Poland. I think we were there five days. I'm always amazed and honored when people allow us into their lives and trust us to tell their most personal stories. So you have an obligation to honor that trust. Adam and his family took a leap of faith with us, so we wanted to do right by them.”
Harves said the ESPN crew split time between filming with Griffith and the people he knew while also trying to capture scenes in the city he used to live. What were the most challenging aspects of the piece?
“Obviously, any time you travel to a place where you don’t speak the language, there will be challenges,” Harves said. “Adam had a teacher at the orphanage who became his legal guardian during his last few years in Poland, and she was able to alert the orphanage that we were planning to come. I worked with a Warsaw-based production company ahead of the trip that helped provide a translator/fixer, transportation, and a camera crew from Poland that spoke very good English. It’s never easy working with a camera crew for the first time, but we hit the jackpot with a tremendous documentary-style cameraman and crew that really made things easier once we got on the ground. The greatest challenge in telling Adam’s story was the fact that there were so many incredible details and moments we captured, you couldn’t fit them all into a seven-minute TV piece, which is still an incredibly long amount of time to tell a story on a show like GameDay.”
After watching the piece, I was curious how, as reporters, Wojciechowski and Harves approached the very personal scenes of Griffith being reunited with his birth family?
“As I’m sure Gene will also tell you, Adam was not sure if his parents still lived there nor was he even sure that he wanted to go to the house,” Harves said. “Once we got to Poland, Adam was giving us a tour of his old orphanage building and it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to his parents house which was only a mile down the road. The approach we took the entire trip was to just sit back and record what happened, letting Adam take us places, letting him tell us about things, and we were really just there to document it all, giving very little direction. Once we got to his birth parents’ home, we truly became a fly on the wall, just recording the emotions and conversations that took place. Adam did not remember how to speak Polish, so he had to rely on the help of a translator at times as did Gene when we interviewed the birth parents. That reunion was a powerful moment to witness.”
Said Wojciechowski, “Adam didn't decide until the last minute that he wanted to visit his birth parents' house. He had gone back on forth on that, and understandably so. It was such an emotional fulcrum for him. When he decided to go, his only request was that we hang back for a few minutes until he approached the house on his own. It turns out his birth dad was outside in the backyard. We then followed Adam into the house and Scott and I found the nearest corner. Everything that happened inside the house was entirely spontaneous.
“As a reporter, I simply wanted to observe those beautiful, heartfelt, natural moments as they unfolded. And that's what we did. The Debowskis [his birth family] were in a daze, but also were so welcoming. There was such emotion, apprehension and joy in the room. It was incredible to witness. Our goal was to tell Adam's story with respect. We didn't want to be helicopter reporters, always hovering. Sometimes he needed his own time … We had a wonderful Polish crew and a translator who did her best to navigate the languages. All in all, an experience of a lifetime. To visit that orphanage and see those lovely children, and think that Adam was once one of them—and then think of his unlikely journey—it still boggles my mind how arbitrary life can be.”
1a. Not surprisingly, Rece Davis smoothly handled his debut as the host of College GameDay. He deferred to his colleagues, which GameDay requires of its host, and appeared to enjoy himself on a show that needs its ringmaster to stay upbeat for three hours. Impressively, the show paid tribute to Chris Fowler and what it could have been awkward segment—or at least felt too staged—came off as touching and thoughtful as Fowler thanked a ton of people (including his TV savvy wife, Jennifer, who is never shy about letting producer Lee Fitting know what works and is usually right) for making the show work. On a related note: I’ll have a column sometime this week on how it went for Davis on Saturday for his first on-site GameDay.
1b. ESPN college football announcer Sean McDonough is perennially underrated as a great game-caller. Here’s how he called the final seconds of BYU’s thrilling win over Nebraska.
• Check out Sports Illustrated's new college football site Campus Rush
1c. Alabama’s win over Wisconsin on ABC’s Saturday Night Football drew a 4.3 overnight rating, up 5% from the same window last year. ESPN said the game received a 46.7 rating in Birmingham, the highest-rated regular season game on ABC ever (dates back to 2004). The Top 5 markets were as followed: 1. Birmingham; 2. Milwaukee; 3. Nashville; 4. Atlanta; 5. Columbus.
1d. Notre Dame’s win over Texas on NBC drew a 2.56 overnight rating, NBC's highest rated Notre Dame Football season opening game since 2008. The Top 5 markets were as followed: 1. Austin; 2. San Antonio; 3. Indianapolis; 4. Oklahoma City; 5 Dallas-Ft. Worth.
2. If you talk to enough people in radio management, you are bound to hear the word “bake.” The short definition for the word in this context is giving a radio show enough time on the air so the show will find its legs and an audience will find the show. Traug Keller, the senior executive for ESPN’s Audio division, said last week in an interview that his company is going to give The Dan LeBatard Show the chance to “bake and grow” in its new time slot. Last week ESPN officially announced the Miami-based show, which previously aired on ESPN Radio from 4–7 p.m. ET, will now air from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET (with an 9–10 a.m. hour airing only in Miami).
“We are putting in that time slot what I think is an extremely interesting and entertaining radio show and putting it in a day part that will get much wider distribution,” Keller said. “This is a show we believe in. It is different than almost everything else we do at ESPN Radio … I think the nature, tenor and humor of the show will play in big markets and the diversity of the show will play in big markets. It will have a chance to bake and grow. Radio is not instantaneous. It is habitual and you have to let something be on the air for awhile to give it a fair shot. Look at the Rush Limbaugh example and countless other people that are now big talents that in their early years it [ratings] just wasn’t there. That’s a difference between radio and TV.”
Keller is paid to be optimistic and he’s an upbeat guy. He believes the LeBatard show will make inroads in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The show will not air in Chicago. Having lived in New York City for a couple of decades, I shall provide Mr. Keller with some free consumer data: Neither the LeBatard Show or any national radio sports show is beating the local sports station here (WFAN) in a key day part anytime soon. But competition and choice is good for listeners and ESPN Radio shows will no doubt attract some listeners away from terrestrial radio in major sports cities. Keller said there was no outside candidates who were considered for the Cowherd time slot.
LeBatard’s move to the late morning means his old 4–7 p.m. slot is now open at ESPN Radio. Keller said that decision is expected to be made public in the next few weeks. Asked specifically if he has decided on the selection, Keller said, “We cannot comment on that.” I’ve heard the Chicago-based Waddle and Silvy Show is getting heavy consideration. There have also been discussions with Bomani Jones, who currently has a show on ESPN Radio that airs at night.
“We are looking for a show that will be entertaining and different,” Keller said. “It’s a great place to experiment and to push new talent or talent that has not necessarily been in the mainstream. It’s a great place to build a bench. Whatever we decide, it will be a strong show.”
2a. Keller said listeners should expect additional moves at ESPN Radio involving talent beyond the 4–7 p.m. slot. Last month the network announced that college football analyst and part-time bro Danny Kannell would partner with Ryen Russillo for the network’s daily 1–4 p.m. ET show.
“Those two seemed to click well and that was where our programming folks wanted to take the show,” Keller said of why Kanell was chosen. “I know Russillo was very much on board on with that [Kanell].”
• DEITSCH: Ryen Russillo talks decision to stay at ESPN
2b. As for the person who set these moves in motion, Colin Cowherd will debut on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports Radio on Sept. 8. The show will air from 12–3 p.m. ET. Keller, who is very close with Cowherd personally, said Cowherd will be up against local ESPN shows in Los Angeles, a big market for Fox. “I will let you infer whatever you infer from that,” Keller said.
What do I infer? That it will be very tough for Cowherd in that market and getting clearance in other markets—at least at the start.
Keller said he had no second thoughts about ESPN Radio’s relationship ended with Cowherd, which saw the host pulled from the air in July prior to the end of his contract. “No regrets,” Keller said.
2c. ESPN’s digital options for the U.S. Open are truly awesome—every court is covered for ESPN3 users—but that should not take away from the base responsibility of showing live tennis over yuck-fests. On Saturday, in what was clearly frustrating for tennis fans, ESPN spent an endless amount of time interviewing John Isner as live tennis (including an immense comeback by American Donald Young) was being played across the grounds. The best course of action for such interviews is placing the subject in a small box and giving viewers matches in a larger one. The content of what the interview subject is what counts—and not showing your audience your fancy-looking practice court set fronted by high-priced talent.
• Sexual harassment toward female sports reporters is far too common
3. Welcome to the 18th episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch. In this podcast, which is published weekly, Deitsch interviews members of the sports media about their work, and interesting people about the sports media.
This week’s guest is ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, the co-host of the ESPN2 daily show His & Hers, as well as a podcast of the same name. In the podcast Hill discusses how her show is put together, her journey to get recognized as an on-air opinionist at ESPN, the dearth of black women offering opinion in the sports media, why Bill Simmons left ESPN, the prospects of The Undefeated site launching, how she approached interviewing Janay and Ray Rice, what it’s like for women in sports—and specifically minority women—in social media and more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• About as strong an anti-Roger Goodell column as I've ever read. From Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post.
• An excellent piece by Deadspin’s Tom Ley on the NFL and militarism and one audience getting played.
• I can't love this enough. The New York Times has an interactive gallery of the first courts Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and other pro players played on.
• Much respect for Mardy Fish to discuss his anxiety attacks publicly. Millions suffer silently.
• Michael Dolan, writing for Athletes Quarterly, on boxer Emanual Augustus.
• SI’s S.L. Price on Nick Kyrgios and the death of the 'Aussie Way'
• Interesting piece by The MMQB’s Peter King on what went wrong for Robert Griffin III.
• ESPN.com’s Craig Custance on the late Steve Montador.
• From Amos Barshad: The twisted, true story of the drug-addled, beer-guzzling hardcore punks who made the most popular T-shirts in Boston history.
• Grantland’s Bryan Curtis on the never-ending black hole of covering Deflategate.
• DEITSCH: Brandon Marshall criticizes Cris Carter for 'fall guy' comments
Non sports pieces of note:
• Master class reporting and writing by New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten with this profile of death and life in Atlantic City.
• Via Slate: Why drivers in China intentionally kill the pedestrians they hit.
• National Post columnist Terry Glavin on a child's dead body off the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, and the role Canada played.
• The Allentown Morning Call story that prompted the Jimmy Snuka grand jury probe leading to a charge in the case.
• The Washington Post examines: Does Donald Trump cheat at golf?
• From The New York Times reporter Ken Belson: Sony cut scenes from the movie Concussion over concern they would antagonize the NFL:
• The ESPN NBA and Around The Horn commentator Israel Gutierrez writes with eloquence here on his journey to coming out publicly.
• Via Washington Post: My daughter was killed on live television. I will do whatever it takes to end gun violence.
• This piece by Charles Holmans on Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy found dead on the beach, really stuck with me.
• Via The New York Times: Adult, Autistic and Ignored
5. Great job by The Tennis Channel to give love to the iconic tennis commentator and writer Bud Collins on Sunday during its Live At the U.S. Open show and a Signature Series documentary on Collins narrated by the writer and commentator. The tribute was tied to the Media Center at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center being renamed for Collins yesterday. Collins helped popularize the sport of tennis in America and he did so (for the most part) with a journalistic bent. When he got old, he got run out of television but he never lost his passion for the sport. He was also a nice guy to younger writers in the press room, including this one. Here’s Jon Wertheim’s tribute piece to Collins.
5a. Golf Digest’s Ron Sirak has details on the sloppy departure of David Feherty from CBS.
5b. Chicago Tribune writer Phil Hersch on whether the big interest in women in sports the last few months will carry beyond 2015
5c. New York Times writer Richard Sandomir traveled to Boston to speak with Red Sox and NESN management about why they fired popular broadcaster Don Orsillo. Try to keep a straight face reading their quotes.
5d. Read this essay and ask yourself, “Why do we rarely, if ever, see 60-year-old women working in the sports media?”
5e. Utah’s win over Michigan drew 2.87 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, the most-watched college football game in that network's short history.
• DEITSCH: Beth Mowins discusses women calling NFL games
5f. As I wrote on Twitter, I think Curt Schilling got a raw deal from ESPN because once again the network’s discipline of its talent remains arbitrary and selective. Last week ESPN announced that the baseball broadcaster had been pulled for the remainder of the Sunday Night Baseball schedule. ESPN initially pulled Schilling off its airwaves until Sept. 6 for sending a tweet in late August containing a meme comparing Muslims to Nazis. Schilling apologized for it, calling it a bad decision and he was pulled off the air for a short time. That seemed like a reasonable workplace outcome for all parties.
So what changed? Well, after the website Awful Announcing published an email exchange between Schilling and one of its writers, ESPN suspended Schilling from its airwaves for the season and the playoffs. Within Schilling’s exchange with Awful Announcing, Schilling was very critical of ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen. Read into that what you want. ESPN initially responded by saying, “We weren’t aware of Curt’s plan to craft or send this email. We are looking into it.” They later followed with this: “At all times during the course of their engagement with us, our commentators are directly linked to ESPN and are the face of our brand. We are a sports media company. Curt’s actions have not been consistent with his contractual obligations nor have they been professionally handled; they have obviously not reflected well on the company. As a result, he will not appear on ESPN through the remainder of the regular season and our Wild Card playoff game.”
What happens next? Sources at ESPN said no decision had been made about what role Schilling will or will not have in 2016.
5g. One positive that came from the Schilling situation is the elevation of analyst Jessica Mendoza. She will take over the Schilling spot on Sunday Night Baseball from now until the end of the season. Worth noting is Schilling has been hugely supportive of Mendoza publicly. No matter the resolution next year with Schilling, Mendoza’s work has earned the promotion to be part of one of the game analysts on ESPN’s baseball coverage next year. We’ll see what the network does.