On a summer afternoon in 2014, I sat behind a man wearing a tattered Gil Meche shirsey in the ballroom of a Times Square hotel while taking a 30-question quiz about sports trivia. I had responded a few weeks earlier to a casting call for Sports Jeopardy! hoping to finally be able to put the reams of useless sports knowledge that clutter my brain to good use. If that one man’s devotion to an extremely average former Mariners starter was any indication, I was among hundreds of other people hoping to do the same.
The quiz was hard. Like, hard even for a guy who can name the mascot for every Division I FBS team. I’d love to know how I did, but the scores were never revealed. After the quizzes were graded, the hopefuls fell into one of two camps: those invited to stick around and audition by playing a mock game of Sports Jeopardy! and those who went home with nothing but a pen that looked like the iconic Jeopardy! buzzer.
I’d fallen into the former group. While other candidates tried to impress the producers with their personalities, I just tried to keep my wits about me. I worried that the excitable producer, Maggie Speak, wouldn’t be a fan of my even-keeled presence on the podium, but whether they wanted a foil for more upbeat contestants or simply saw the job I’d started at Sports Illustrated two months earlier as something that could help gin up publicity for the new show, a few weeks later I was invited to fly out to Southern California to actually be on the show.
Initial applications for Sports Jeopardy! were incredibly numerous. In a one-month span, more than 25,000 people signed up hoping to be one of the 150 contestants chosen for the show’s first season. It’s not a surprise why: The flagship Jeopardy! program is an institution, gracing screens around the world for more than three decades. Sports Jeopardy! gave fans the opportunity to be adjacent to the king of all trivia programs while also getting to show off their sports knowledge, as all sports fans love to do.
That means all sports fans. Last week, as I talked to him about his upcoming stint as the guest host of Jeopardy! Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers mentioned the offshoot unprompted.
“I wanted to be on Sports Jeopardy!—they were running it for a while—but I love sports trivia,” he told me. “I’ve been a fan of Trivial Pursuit, one of my favorite board games. I love, whether it’s the old game or some newer cards, I definitely pick the sports category as much as possible.”
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely we’ll ever get to see Rodgers answer sports trivia questions since Sports Jeopardy! has been off the air for five years now. The show had all the ingredients necessary to make it a success: It was produced by the same team that worked on Alex Trebek’s flagship version of the show. Veteran sportscaster Dan Patrick had been brought in by Sony to host. Howie Schwab, of Stump the Schwab fame, was even one of the clue writers and an occasional on-screen presence. So why didn’t it work?
The concept for Sports Jeopardy! was more or less as simple as it sounds. Think of it as the classic Jeopardy! series with face paint. It was filmed in the same studio as the original show, with the set dressed up to look like the inside of a sports bar. It borrowed clue writers and producers from Jeopardy! The gameplay was nearly identical except for the fact that clues on the board were worth points, not dollar amounts—the winner received $5,000 regardless of how many points they accumulated—and that each of the six categories featured four clues, rather than five.
Less simple was how Sony positioned Sports Jeopardy! as something of an experiment in new media. Before the TV show was announced, Sony launched a Sports Jeopardy! trivia app. At first, it was a straightforward, independent, multiple-choice sports trivia game for iOS and Android, but by the middle of the first season, it had been updated to facilitate a second-screen viewing experience in which viewers could tally their own score against the players on the show.
The distribution strategy for the show would be a regrettable experiment: While Jeopardy! airs in syndication on local network affiliates, Sports Jeopardy! was distributed on Sony’s fledgling streaming service, Crackle, a free, ad-supported platform that never quite caught on.
One thing that Sony did right was recruit Patrick to host. The longtime ESPN and NBC Sports anchor had been approached years earlier as a potential host of the flagship Jeopardy! program when Alex Trebek was thought to be mulling retirement. Obviously, that didn’t quite work out, but Patrick was happy to be a smaller part of the Jeopardy! universe.
“I wanted to see if I could do it,” he says. “It was a challenge. I love trivia. I love that show. It was going to be on the set of Jeopardy! I was going to be working with the same people Alex Trebek worked with. It just sounded like there was so much potential there that I would give up my vacation time to fly out there and shoot episodes. It was that important to me.”
Sports Jeopardy! ran for three seasons, from 2014 to 2016. The first two seasons consisted of 52 episodes each, while the third lasted just 12. There were no returning champions for the first season. Instead, the three highest-scoring players were invited to participate in a Tournament of Champions for $50,000. Beginning with the second season, winners were able to return to defend their title on the next episode and add to their purse. As the winner of Season 1, Episode 5, I’m left to wonder how much more money I could have earned if I were allowed to defend my title.
The history of sports game shows is long but not so storied. The first and longest-lasting entry in the genre was Sports Challenge, which ran for eight seasons from 1971–79, pitting two trios of athletes, each representing their pro teams, against each other. There were other short-lived nationally syndicated shows like Grandstand (’88–89) and Sports Snapshot (’93–94). Fox Sports Net tried to break into the game show business with Ultimate Fan League (’98–99), which had contestants throw a ball at the game board to pick a category, and the Matt Vasgersian–hosted Sports Geniuses (2000). When the pandemic shut down pro sports in the spring of 2020, amiable Devils defenseman P.K. Subban hosted NHL Hat Trick Trivia, which aired in both the U.S. and Canada.
And no network has tried harder to make sports trivia work than ESPN. In the early ’90s there was Designated Hitter (’93–94), Perfect Match (’94), a combination trivia-athletic skills competition show called Dream League (’93–94) and the very hokey sports-bar-set Sports on Tap (’94–95). ESPN Trivial Pursuit, which combined sports and pop culture questions, had a five-episode trial run in 2004.
ESPN found the greatest success with 2 Minute Drill (adapted from Great Britain’s Mastermind), hosted by Kenny Mayne, which ran for 52 episodes from 2000 to 2001, and Stump the Schwab, which was hosted by Stuart Scott and lasted for 80 episodes from 2004 to 2006.
TV networks considered sports a potential gold mine for quiz shows. Numbers and facts are as memorable for sports fans as home runs and touchdowns. They might commit these things to memory in hopes of winning arguments in barrooms and barbershops, or do it inadvertently, just as a side effect of spending so much time thinking about sports. And yet, that hasn’t translated to a viable, lasting form of television entertainment.
One reason Jeopardy! has been as popular as it has been for as long as it has is its sheer density of trivia, says Claire McNear, the author of Answers in the Form of Questions, a book about the history of Jeopardy!
“You just get through so much material,” McNear says. “There is so little zany filler stuff. If you look at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? you get through 15 total questions if you make it to a million dollars, and that’s often spread over multiple episodes. A single game of Jeopardy is 61 clues. It’s just so much trivia. It is, by definition, just a better trivia game.
“A funny thing about Jeopardy! is that it is meant so much more for the people shouting out answers from their couch than for the three people on stage. I think so much of the magic of Jeopardy! is really that it is a trivia contest for like eight million people every night and just randomly some paralegal from L.A. happens to get $20,000.”
While Sports Jeopardy! adhered to the successful Jeopardy! format, Sony took a gamble in trying something new by making the series digital-only. The program debuted as the television industry scrambled to address the cord-cutting trend. The number of American households without cable or satellite television jumped 3.1% between 2010 and 2014. Among millennial households, the increase was twice as large.
Entertainment giant Sony’s first foray into the streaming wars came in 2006 when it purchased a video-sharing site called Grouper and began using it to host 30- to 60-second clips from TV shows and movies it owned. The idea, according to VentureBeat, was that viewers would “fall in love with the scene again, and want to buy the movie online.” Every clip ended with an ad encouraging the viewer to buy the DVD.
The clips were hosted on one of Grouper’s dozen-plus “channels” called ScreenBites. Other channels included Moving Targets (“freestyle sketch comedy and other crazy-ass s---”), Wet Paint (“animation that’s definitely not for kids”) and Funny (“If it makes you laugh—it’s funny. Nothing is off-limits.”). Mashable hailed ScreenBites as “great viral advertising for Sony's content” and praised the easy integration with social networks MySpace and hi5, which “allows social networking users to express themselves by identifying with certain movies.” It’s not a surprise, in retrospect, that Grouper soon needed a reinvention.
As YouTube began to dominate the market for short-form online video content, Grouper was later renamed Crackle and transformed into something more closely resembling a modern streaming service. Users, without even having to create an account, could watch Sony series and movies for free, interrupted by ads. It was best known for being the first streaming home of Seinfeld but also featured original programming. Following the successful 2012 debut of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Sony ramped up production of Crackle original series.
At its April 2014 NewFronts presentation, Crackle announced nine new or returning original series, including Sports Jeopardy! In a statement heralding the announcement, Sony executive and Crackle head Eric Berger said the company was “offering the next evolution of television, including an audience not reachable through traditional television.”
In an email (leaked as part of the wide-ranging Sony Pictures hack) to Sports Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman ahead of the NewFronts presentation, Berger was even more bullish about what Crackle and Sports Jeopardy! meant for the television industry. Berger suggested that Patrick take the stage to “touch on the fact that by doing it for Digital, we’re really addressing a new demographic in a forward-looking way (the future of TV).”
For Patrick, where the show would air was unimportant.
“I just wanted to do it,” Patrick says. “I didn’t think, ‘Where’s it going to be seen? How many people will see it?’ I assumed that they had done their due diligence with how many eyeballs they could get on this. I wasn’t sure what the bigger play was. I wasn’t involved in that.”
Thanks to the hackers, we have an idea of how many people were watching Sports Jeopardy! when it first launched. According to viewership numbers included in an email sent on Oct. 24, 2014, one month after the show debuted and two days after the premiere of the fifth episode, the show was streamed about 1.4 million times on Crackle, for a total of over 16 million minutes. On average, viewers watched about 11.5 minutes of the 24-minute episodes. (It’s unclear whether the by-minute data includes time spent watching ads.) The show also introduced a new audience to the streaming service. According to the email, 46% of Sports Jeopardy! viewers were new visitors to the site and 38% watched other shows and movies on Crackle.
By comparison, the 12-episode original series Sequestered was streamed a total of 2.7 million times in the three months between its release and when this data was calculated. The five-episode fourth season of Comedians in Cars was streamed 6.5 million times in a four-month span.
Streaming may have been the future of media consumption, but not the way Crackle delivered it.
“The Crackle site was a little tough to get because for a while it would play episodes backwards [from most recent to oldest],” eight-time Sports Jeopardy! champ Earl Holland says. “So if you wanted to go in a particular order it would be tough. It was not [very] user-friendly. The format of Crackle was tough.”
Unlike competitors Netflix and Hulu, Crackle was not part of, as Berger would say, “the next evolution of television.” It was a total flop. In March 2019, Sony sold a majority stake to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, the company that publishes the feel-good books of the same name. (The streaming service joined a line of pet food—some of it, indeed, chicken-based—in CSSE’s growing portfolio of businesses.) Sony transferred its remaining stake in the Crackle to CSSE in a stock deal in December. Sports Jeopardy! is no longer available on the platform, though other Crackle originals produced under Sony, like Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy, are. (A CSSE spokesperson told Sports Illustrated that after it acquired Crackle, it “received rights to exhibit Crackle original programming that was produced by Sony for a limited time period.”)
“I just wish it wouldn’t have been tied to Crackle, or if it had been, that Crackle would have gotten a wider release,” Patrick says. “But I wasn’t involved in any of those things.”
For the truncated third season, Sports Jeopardy! was exposed to a new audience on NBC Sports Network. Episodes debuted on Crackle and reaired later on NBCSN after the network’s Wednesday night hockey games. Episodes from the back catalog also aired at odd hours late at night.
But the additional exposure was not enough to keep the show going. Production was halted after a final set of tapings in the summer of 2016.
The man who won the final show was Tony Hughes, a Los Angeles–area local whose chance to compete was left entirely up to chance. Jeopardy! usually has locals on hand as extra potential contestants in case one of the out-of-towners can’t participate in the taping (because they got stuck in traffic, got sick after lunch, etc.). Whoever doesn’t appear is guaranteed a spot on the show at a future taping.
“It was me and some other guy and they said, ‘It’ll be one of the two of you and we’re going to just draw a name out of a hat,’ ” Hughes recalls.
Hughes’s name came out of the hat and he emerged victorious, answering 20 of 23 clues correctly. After the show wrapped, producers told Hughes that the show was “going to be on hiatus” but he’d be back as defending champion if and when it returned.
“We’re expecting to come back in a few months and you’ll be on again as the defending champ,” he recalls them saying. But over the winter, he got a call from one of the producers explaining that production on the show had ceased. He would be back to defend his title if new episodes were picked up, but that hasn’t happened.
Does Patrick know why it got axed?
“No, unless it was just cost,” he says. “It was expensive to do because I’m using union people, I’m on the Sony lot, I’ve got the Jeopardy! set. They’ve got to change over the Jeopardy! set. The people who come up with the clues are coming up with the clues for me. Executive producer Harry Friedman is working on the show. I had the whole staff. I had everybody that Alex had. I would imagine that, throw in my salary and it’s a pretty hefty price tag to be able to do.
“Once I was done with it, I was done with it. I just thought, if somebody wants it or they want to have a younger host, a different host, then great, I’d be more than happy to help with that. It was on life support and I figured it was going to be a struggle to keep it alive. There was no CPR coming anytime soon for it, and that was unfortunate.”
While Jeopardy! has found success with limited-run themed tournaments (the College Championship, Teen Tournament, Teachers Tournament, etc.), attempts to create niche stand-alone versions of the franchise have not succeeded in the past. In being canceled, Sports Jeopardy! became the third Jeopardy! spinoff to be shelved, joining the kids’ version Jep! (1998–2000) and VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy! (1998–2001). Might a limited-run sports tournament be a way to bring Sports Jeopardy! back to life?
Patrick believes strongly that, with the right support, Sports Jeopardy! could be a success and has tried repeatedly to find a home for the franchise.
“We tried to keep it alive for the last couple of years,” he says. “I reached out to ESPN. I thought that when John Skipper was still there that it was a distinct possibility. I said, ‘You put that in the afternoon half-hour block and there’s no heavy lifting. It’s just basically, you put it in the lineup and let it go. You don’t have to have a producer, a director, anything. It’s ready to go. Add water and stir.’ ”
Part of the issue, Patrick says, is that Sony wouldn’t allow production to occur outside of the Sony Pictures lot in Southern California. (Patrick suggested taping the show in Stamford, Conn., where The Jerry Springer Show and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? were previously filmed, a short drive from his radio studio.) Finding a spot in ESPN’s afternoon lineup was no guarantee, either. But Patrick had all sorts of ideas for how a rebooted Sports Jeopardy! would look.
“We did 100 episodes. I said, ‘Just look at it,’ ” he recalls. “You have 100 episodes right now in the library you can use. Right off the bat, 100 episodes. I just thought, that’s a good grace period leading into it. Then you start to do Jeopardy! on the road at the Super Bowl, Jeopardy! on the road at the Final Four, Jeopardy! on the road at a college campus. It just felt like you could do a lot. And then you just do the regular show itself.
“I wanted to get legendary sportscasters to compete against each other. If you’ve got Joe Buck and Bob Costas and Al Michaels, I just thought those things would be a whole lot of fun. You could get reporters, sideline reporters. Whatever it is. I thought there were so many ideas. You could get actors; you could get musicians. You could do a lot of different things with it. I couldn’t find the right audience, in Sony or ESPN or some of these other outlets. I guess I couldn’t find somebody as passionate as I was.”
Patrick’s passion for the franchise is perhaps only matched by that of Vinny Varadarajan, Sports Jeopardy!’s version of Ken Jennings. Varadarajan benefited tremendously from the rule change that allowed for returning champions. His 15-episode run was the longest in the show’s history and netted him $77,000. He and Holland, who collected $41,000 by winning eight episodes, are the two most successful champs in the show’s history. For Varadarajan, the rewards of being on Sports Jeopardy! didn’t stop when he walked off the Sony lot. He and Holland have struck up a friendship.
“He reached out to me during my run to say congratulations and we sort of built a bond,” Holland says. “I keep in contact with him every now and then.”
“Earl has a podcast and he’s had me on a couple of times,” Varadarajan says. “Myself and Earl, we never played against each other. But other people who I have played against, we have kept in touch, maybe through Facebook or Twitter, or if they’re in the D.C. area, we’ll get together, more in prepandemic times. It’s a fun little fraternity.”
When his episodes were airing, Varadarajan got a kick out of interacting with viewers on Twitter and being recognized in public.
“For a few months after my shows aired, I’d be out and about and someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re the guy from Sports Jeopardy!’ ” Varadarajan says. “It was pretty fun for a year or so. Even randomly at Dodger Stadium, one guy there [recognized me].”
Though he was noteworthy enough that strangers might have known who he was, Varadarajan admits with a chuckle that the craze around his run was “not even close” to the frenzy that a guy like 32-time Jeopardy! champ James Holzhauer would spark. He knows the profile of Sports Jeopardy! was much, much lower. The kind of people who caught his episodes, he thinks, probably weren’t like the Jeopardy! fans who make the show part of their daily routine.
“I just assumed they were really bored on a Delta flight.”