While evolving, SportsCenter remains sun in ESPN's solar system

If you were playing a word-association game and offered up "ESPN," surely "sports" would be the primary response. If you asked me what would come in second, my confident guess would be the hybrid word that has defined the network since its launch: "SportsCenter."

SportsCenter has been the sun in ESPN's solar system ever since the day George Grande anchored its very first episode on Sept. 7, 1979. And the names that have taken part in that show read like a who's who of media stars, some of whom further made their names outside of ESPN -- and some outside of sports altogether. That all-star roster includes Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, Robin Roberts, Greg Gumbel, Bob Ley, Craig Kilborn, Kenny Mayne, Linda Cohn, Rich Eisen, Mike Tirico, Charley Steiner, Chris Myers, Hannah Storm, Steve Levy, Scott Van Pelt, Stan Verrett, Neil Everett and so many others.

At its height, SportsCenter didn't just reflect the conversations happening in sports; it drove them. That was in part because of the personalities and catchphrases of its talent, and also because -- for a while -- it was one of the few places where a sports fan could happily consume a well-edited tsunami of sports highlights from across the globe without the intrusion of any real-world news.

"Every sports news and information show anywhere starts with SportsCenter," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president and executive editor of studio production, and the man currently in charge of the SportsCenter franchise. "It's the same for every studio news and information show. SportsCenter was the first."

Added Rob King, ESPN's senior vice president of original content newsgathering and digital media: "With ESPN and SportsCenter, if you think of one, you think of the other."

Beyond its indisputable influence, SportsCenter also has long served as a bellwether of sorts for ESPN. When the network launched, its first show was SportsCenter, and much of ESPN's young energy -- and best young talent -- emanated from the show. ESPN's expansion into the sports behemoth it is today was heavily powered by SportsCenter, as it became a household brand that millions of fans watched, and thousands of athletes dreamed of being featured on. The "da-da-da, da-da-da" signature theme became iconic, as did many of the terrific "This Is SportsCenter" commercials.

But so much has changed since those halcyon days, for the network and for SportsCenter. Today, ESPN -- though still financially successful -- faces business challenges associated to cable unbundling. That unbundling has resulted in a disaggregated media environment that threatens shows such as SportsCenter -- the ultimate in aggregated content. As a result, SportsCenter is facing challenges and facing a future that seems less certain than ever.

The roots of today's challenges date back to the launch of the web in the mid-1990s. SportsCenter remained immune to those changes for a long period, and its position as the place to go for sports highlights remained safe -- thanks in part to the low connection speeds of most early web connections, the relatively small number of viable digital competitors that emerged in the early web years, and the fact that leagues and conferences weren't yet in the online highlights game.

But that immunity couldn't last forever. Connection speeds improved; leagues and conferences launched their own sites; a new wave of digital competitors to ESPN emerged; and social media allowed disembodied highlight clips to cross the globe in minutes. By the early 2010s, daily televised sports highlights had lost much of their luster.

But even those changes didn't create an existential crisis for SportsCenter. That's because ESPN was able to take advantage of another key development of the internet era: It had personalities consumers liked and were willing to seek out.

Over the past few years, the company began building SportsCenter editions around some of its big names. In 2015, the network launched a midnight show around Van Pelt. In February 2017, ESPN debuted SC6 with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who had previously starred together on ESPN2's His & Hers. And, last May, the network announced new lineups for the other key SportsCenter shows that featured many of its longest-serving and most popular anchors, and notably included the return of Mayne to SportsCenter duties for the first time in nearly a decade.

As of Jan. 26, however, there was one less personality manning SportsCenter. Hill announced that she'd decided to leave SC6 to become chief correspondent and senior columnist at The Undefeated, ESPN's site exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture. Hill also noted that she would be contributing to other ESPN shows and has other projects in the works.

According to multiple sources at ESPN, the decision to leave SC6 was indeed Hill's, stemming from a desire to return to reporting and from a sense that recent changes to SportsCenter made it less of a fit for her. (As a side note, Hill's presence across a broader array of ESPN properties strikes me as a very good thing. Despite my past criticism of some of her political tweets, Hill's talent and passion remain a big net plus for ESPN).

Hill's shift doesn't mean ESPN is pulling back from personality-driven SportsCenters.

But Williamson has made it clear -- by words and deeds -- that he wants SportsCenter to return closer to its roots as a content-driven show.

"Content always drives [SportsCenter], but we layer personality on top of good production vision," he said. "Content or talent can't get you where you want to be by themselves. You need both. If I had to pick one, it'd be content. ... But we're not backing off personalities, not at all. We just need to shore up our content vision and execution. Whether it's Pardon the Interruption, Mike & Mike or First Take, the reason it works is because they have great talent and great chemistry layered onto a content plan and content strategy."

While there is some internal debate at ESPN about whether the personality strategy has worked -- SC6's ratings are not great, but Van Pelt's SportsCenter dominates his time slot among men ages 18 to 34 -- one thing is certain: That strategy was predicated on the idea that people were still largely watching SportsCenter on television. And while that still is the case, the landscape is changing as the continued expansion of the web, accelerated cable unbundling and the immense power of external platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are combining to move eyeballs away from traditional broadcasts.

"I think the question is, ‘Are you putting your resources to things that are giving you the greatest impact?'" Williamson said. "With the evolution of digital, we weren't getting the bang for the buck [on television]. Can we use those resources in other places?"

So as appointment viewing for sports outside of live events gradually becomes a thing of the past, ESPN needs to determine what role SportsCenter will play in its future.

In recent months, ESPN made some major changes to SportsCenter's footprint. In November, Williamson announced that the network would stop airing SportsCenter editions on ESPNNEWS 7-11 p.m. ET. And ESPN's 2018 schedule has removed a few more editions, meaning that no SportsCenter will air on any ESPN television property between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"We were all-in on SportsCenter for a lot of years," Williamson said. "If anything, the expansion of SportsCenter happened because there was a big consumer demand for it. Now we're in a place where consumer behavior is changing, and maybe we were a little slow to wean ourselves off of the number of hours."

So, what should that future look like? Before we dig in on that, let's take a quick walk down SportsCenter's memory lane.

To prepare this piece, I asked ESPN to send me a handful of old SportsCenter broadcasts so I could rewind the past and see how the show has evolved over almost 40 years. In chronological order, I reviewed shows from February 1982, February 1983, April 1990, March 1995, April 2000 and October 2005.

The interesting thing about watching the 1982 and 1983 shows was how few highlights were shown -- largely because ESPN didn't have the rights to show most highlights at that time. Instead of a whirlwind of action, the show's pace was leisurely and featured a lot of chatter between the anchors. There were no catchphrases, and the technology was relatively primitive.

The 1982 show -- hosted by Chris Berman and Bob Ley, both of whom, amazingly, are still at ESPN -- featured a 10-minute lead-in that included extensive highlights of just one game and a long discussion about who would be No. 1 in the next college basketball poll. And, before the hour was up, SportsCenter tackled an eclectic set of sports: boxing, skiing, horse racing, auto racing, track and bowling. In the end, 32 percent of the show featured highlights or out-of-studio standups.

The 1983 show, hosted by Tom Mees and Dave Sanders, was a little faster-paced, with 42 percent of the show being highlights or out-of-studio reports. The range of sports was again broad, and the show was trying some new things, most notably -- and I don't mean this positively -- accompanying the highlights to that night's North Carolina-Villanova men's college basketball game with a Muzak version of Human League's "Don't You Want Me." Most of the NBA, NHL and college basketball scores shown that night came in the form of the same flat scoreboard screen you'd see on local television newscasts and had no associated highlights.

By 1990, ESPN had acquired the rights to show more highlights, and SportsCenter reflected that. In the two shows I watched from that year -- one hosted by Mees and Anne Montgomery, the other by Mees and Steiner -- highlights or out-of-studio standups made up just less than half the broadcast. And it was clear that more time was being spent on writing the lead-ins to each highlight package and that more emphasis was being placed on the quality of the banter between the anchors.

The show's metabolism continued to pick up. By the 1995 episode, hosted by Kilborn and Brett Haber, the writing was even sharper, the lead-ins even shorter and the highlights even more prevalent. By this time, 55 percent of the show was highlights or out-of-studio standups.

Mayne and Cohn anchored the 2000 episode I watched, and, by now, the show had extended to an hour, which allowed for plenty of highlights still but also for a slightly slower pace that allowed more conversation between the anchors and more extended pieces -- such as a few long reports from the NFL draft that had occurred that night. As a result, a little less than half the show was highlights or remote reports, but the show moved at a steady clip, with even the conversation between anchors tightly scripted and the catchphrases coming at a staccato pace. (This was, by the way, about a year after "Saturday Night Live" first parodied SportsCenter's obsession with catchphrases.)

The 2005 episode, anchored by Van Pelt and Everett, was the slickest production of the bunch. The set and graphics were significantly upgraded, and the anchors fully scripted and flawless. Not surprisingly, it most closely resembled today's SportsCenter, partially because it was the most recent of the episodes and partially because Van Pelt and Everett are still anchors on the show.

Anyone who has watched SportsCenter over the past 20 years knows it has changed, but watching 10 hours of the show over a 20-year period makes it even more obvious. But that still makes me a rank amateur. Because no one is more qualified to talk about how the show has changed than Steve Levy, its longest-serving anchor.

"The show could not have changed any more," he said. "It's almost unrecognizable from the show I started on in 1993. ... Back then, we got every game in. The worst basketball game of the night was getting a treatment. The difference was we were not doing news and information. We had no reporters in the field, no sponsored elements. It was really on-camera, do three highlights, on-camera, do three highlights, commercial."

Levy also notes that the show is less tightly scripted than it once was.

"We're getting half the show [via earpiece] now," he said. "Before, it felt like we went as scripted all the time and things stayed in order for the most part. Now nothing stays in order, and, except when we're dealing with legal issues or stuff like that, everything else is on the fly. ... Now, I write two lead-ins for an average 60-minute show, and the other stuff is just going to come off the top of my head."

Pulling back on the scripting and amping up the improvisation is part of ESPN's strategy in recent years to focus more on the personalities of individual anchors -- not to mention the chemistry between anchors.

During my tenure as public editor, I have received a number of emails from longtime SportsCenter fans suggesting that any changes to the show are unwelcome. But, as Van Pelt has said, the SportsCenters of yesteryear are unlikely to appeal to younger audiences.

"There's a reverence that we have for those who preceded us," Van Pelt told Digiday. "Dan [Patrick] and Keith [Olbermann] get singled out because they helped take something that was a thing and magnified it. That said, if you were to get a DVD of it and watch it, people would be astonished by how they remembered it compared to what it was. It'd probably be a 30-second lead-in, then a two-minute highlight, and then maybe a 30-second full-screen score panel. So, we just devoted three minutes of our life to the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. If you tried to do that today, 30 seconds in, people would lose interest, no matter how well it was written."

Verrett and Everett, who co-host SportsCenter's overnight show from Los Angeles, are exemplars of the personality and chemistry strategy.

"I think the key to our show is that people enjoy the chemistry we have," Verrett said. "We try and make sure to incorporate that teamwork into everything that we do. We try as best we can to make the show a team effort. That's what viewers have told us they enjoy. [Neil and I] really bonded when we got out there. We're not only co-workers but also good friends. We're just trying to do what's best for the show. There's no competition or jockeying for certain stories."

But Verrett also notes the show hasn't always been oriented that way.

"When I started, the show was the star," he said. "The host could be whoever, but SportsCenter was the star. And that's great as long as you're in an environment without competition. But when you get a market that's as fragmented as it is today, you need something more to rely on. There are different ways to edit, but people are always going to connect to people."

One of the offshoots of that was a push from management to get anchors to be more transparent about rooting interests to better connect with their audience. It's why most users now know Van Pelt went to the University of Maryland, for example. For some, that's been a tough transition.

"I'm not sure where I stand on that one, honestly," Levy said. "But I can't be the only one who doesn't have a favorite team. But seven or eight years ago, that was frowned upon. We were like Dan Rather and supposed to play it down the middle. I'm not comfortable rooting for my team on the air. I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the viewers." (Part of that might be that Levy and I share being long-suffering Jets fans, and, really, what's the point of broadcasting that?)

Verrett says the expanded freedom to show personality has been a good thing.

"If you're on the air and you're a phony and it doesn't match up with who you are, that's tough," he said. "I don't think you can be phony for very long. The ironic thing about TV is that you work so hard to be somebody better than who you are, and you don't necessarily think you're good enough. When you can be yourself, you think, ‘I should have been doing this all along. ... It's easier for me to be who am I now than at any other time since I've been at ESPN."

While I understand the push toward personality, part of the associated challenge is that, to some extent, it meant a retreat from highlights. But that's changing under Williamson, who is shifting back toward an action-driven mindset through a combination of highlights and context.

Williamson acknowledges that core highlights -- for example, the replay of Aaron Rodgers' October shoulder injury -- are ubiquitous. But he thinks that ESPN needs to refocus on some of the associated context. For example, he says, ESPN should show replays of Rodgers' previous injuries and/or produce a graphic that shows who replaced Rodgers after previous injuries and how they fared. Or the network could track Stephen Curry for 48 minutes and show how he moves away from the ball. Simply put, Williamson suggests that not every highlight or graphic ESPN shows needs to be something that's already been widely distributed across media.

So, it's clear that ESPN is wrestling with a lot as it charts SportsCenter's future course. And it'll be fascinating to see how the show evolves because, to me, SportsCenter's challenge is that it has no obvious road to assured future success, but ESPN knows that turning back toward a pure highlights play isn't an option.

Based on his email to me, reader Ryan Hillstrom would be in favor of Williamson's move back toward a more highlights-driven approach:

I watch SC to see sports highlights -- as many as possible. Save the couch discussions and opinions for the talk shows and return SC to what it was 10 years ago. Highlights, highlights, highlights, and back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes all morning. It was great to tune in anytime in the morning and catch the entire show. I liked the repeating shows. Hannah Storm is great. SVP is great. Ninety percent Hannah on SC is too much. Ninety percent SVP on SC is too much… Sports Center should be highlights, highlights, highlights.

For what it's worth, the power of SportsCenter is evidenced by the fact there isn't a single sports fan or ESPN employee I talked to who doesn't have an opinion of what ESPN should do with the show.

My opinion? I think the SportsCenter brand would be aided by being seen less but in more places. Although that might sound like a contradiction, it's not. The SportsCenter brand is iconic; even ESPN's harshest critics wouldn't argue with that. But some inside ESPN worry that the brand has been too omnipresent and that the spate of SportsCenters that once ran across ESPN networks has diluted the brand. The recent schedule reductions were a sign that mindset has won the internal philosophical battle. And that makes sense: If SportsCenter is always on somewhere, there's an argument that it's never a must-watch.

It's not that I don't understand the desire to have SportsCenter running all day. The habits of media consumers have changed dramatically, and today they're far less likely to tune in for appointment programming. So making it so that there was almost always a SportsCenter on somewhere was logical. But, at its height, SportsCenter was running somewhere 15-16 hours per day. That was probably too much, though it should be noted that two staff reductions at ESPN in 2017 were tied, in part, to the decision to air fewer SportsCenters.

Williamson says his focus regarding SportsCenter is to drive three metrics: reach, time spent and frequency. Right now, he says, SportsCenter has an average of 9-10 minutes of time spent per consumer. His goal is to get that to 10-12 minutes, which would be a major help to ratings. The average viewer also watches the show approximately five times per month, and Williamson's goal is to get that to six or seven, saying "We need to devise a promotional strategy to push people to the next day to content they may care about."

To attack reach, Williamson said he wants to use live events -- almost always the network's highest-rated content -- to better promote SportsCenter, such as using breaks to promote the show that is likely to appeal to fans of the participating teams. In turn, ESPN also has been using its existing SportsCenters to more heavily promote its live-event programming. Such changes, ESPN sources say, helped shift SC6 closer to a traditional SportsCenter than the personality-driven show originally conceived -- and in part made it a less optimal fit for Hill.

None of the challenges SportsCenter has faced in recent years means viewers don't watch. Millions still do every month. Overall, SportsCenter ratings are up 1 percent year over year, but the morning shows are down 9 percent over that time. That loss has been mitigated by a 10 percent gain for the show's Coast to Coast edition. SC6 is down 2 percent from the equivalent time slot last year. And while Van Pelt still performs strongly with young men, the ratings for that show are slightly down year over year.

While ESPN attempts to re-energize the SportsCenter brand by limiting its exposure, it also should continue down the path of detaching the show from its broadcast moorings to find new audiences that can sustain the brand for another 40 years. ESPN, like all media companies, finds itself more and more reliant on external platforms, and while many of those social media outlets might change, there will always be external platforms that warrant attention.

That's why I think what ESPN is doing on Snapchat makes so much sense. In November, ESPN replaced the magazine-like presentation it previously had on Snapchat Discover with mini-SportsCenter episodes, fully branded and featuring a voice that reflects that platform. ESPN's previous offering on Snapchat was quite well done. But the new product allows ESPN to export it oldest and most prestigious sub-brand to the young audience it needs to sustain it.

And that speaks to one of the great things about having an iconic brand: Even if consumers don't engage with the brand today, they know it exists. And that means potential new consumers will likely give it more of a chance. By strategically exporting the SportsCenter brand to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else comes next, it's far more likely to become ubiquitous than if it remains largely landlocked on television and ESPN.com.

And the brand has expanded far beyond Snapchat. On Instagram, the SportsCenter account has 10.8 million followers. The show's Twitter account has an astounding 35.5 million followers, and its Facebook page has 13.5 million likes. SportsCenter clips are also available as part of ESPN's YouTube channel, which has almost 2.5 million subscribers.

In addition to the SportsCenter brand's presence on ESPN's apps, the network has made streaming and on-demand video segments available via Apple TV and other OTT (over-the-top) platforms such as Slingbox and Roku. ESPN has also been increasingly expanding the SportsCenter brand outside of the U.S. It has long featured SportsCenter on ESPN Deportes and its Spanish and Portuguese language networks in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, and recently added localized SportsCenter editions for its partners in sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines.

"Our single strongest brand is SportsCenter," Williamson said. "I think it's sort of like a portfolio that has to diversify when the market is really good."

This past May, ESPN announced an initiative that moves this direction: SportsCenter Right Now. These segments -- which began running in August -- were designed to bring SportsCenter inside other ESPN programming on digital and broadcast platforms. These short segments carry the SportsCenter branding into halftime shows, onto ESPN.com and inside the ESPN App.

"I have never seen [James] Corden's show, I'm on at the same time," Van Pelt told Digiday. "But I've seen him sing in the car with a bunch of people. Does that mean I haven't seen his show? It's the same thing with us. Maybe you didn't see our show last night, but maybe you caught Van Pelt's 'One Big Thing' segment on your phone. People haven't chosen someone else, they're just choosing to find you in some other place. So how do we serve that other place? That's what I think we've been able to do well."

Others aren't sure SportsCenter can be saved. "I'm not sure it's really fixable," BTIG cable analyst Rich Greenfield told Yahoo Finance. "People don't watch sports news on TV when highlights are on your phone 24/7, and when the NFL has highlights on Twitter and Snapchat. People don't need SportsCenter like they used to."

That's surely true. But not needing it is different from not wanting it. SportsCenter is still extremely valuable, and, to me, it's more a matter of figuring out how to continue to redeploy the brand on other platforms than whether the appetite for highlights still exists.

One of the other issues ESPN might need to address is the balance of the brands. Anyone who has watched SC6 or the midnight SportsCenter knows the brands that matter there are, respectively, Hill and Smith and Van Pelt. I get the desire to develop individual brands; it's a tried-and-true strategy in a disaggregated digital world.

But it might be that the desire to develop personal brands inside SportsCenter comes with a degree of difficulty that may not be worth the risk. Hill and Smith's chemistry was evident to anyone who watched His & Hers, but it's a less-comfortable fit on a 6 p.m. show that had not been known for what Hill and Smith do best. And because SC6's ratings are still not challenged, the lesson might be that ESPN should develop personalities and develop SportsCenter -- but shouldn't conflate the two.

There's one other way in which SportsCenter mirrors ESPN: Although some are predicting its demise, there's still a lot of juice left in the brand. That doesn't mean the challenges aren't real, or that SportsCenter doesn't need to reset itself inside the ESPN solar system.

But counting it out seems premature.

Hill called SportsCenter "ESPN's baby," adding "As [ESPN senior VP] Rob King told me, ‘SportsCenter is what keeps the lights on.' If you are a sports fan, you don't know a world without SportsCenter."

And Williamson and his ESPN colleagues seem determined to make sure you never will.