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How to Fix SportsCenter: While We’re Waiting…

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Happy Pre-Friday, y’all. I’d say it was a swell Wednesday for the City of Cleveland, though I can’t say I asked it personally. The Browns didn’t lose, the Indians and Corey Kluber dealt another blow to those dastardly White Sox, and the Cavaliers took a 3-2 series lead over the Toronto Raptors, closing them in their jaws with the skin-tearing, bone-crushing force of a much larger dinosaur. I now feel 40 percent less panicked.

After Game 4, I implored the Cavaliers to trap Raptor guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (who combined for 67 points in Game 4), instead of sitting back on their heels and hoping good things would happen on defense. In Game 5, the Cavaliers did just that, scoring 30 points off 18 Toronto turnovers (more than they forced in Games 3 and 4 combined), conceding only 27 points to Lowry and DeRozan. Besides the obvious result of impeding Lowry and DeRozan, trapping hard forces the Cavaliers to have an aggressive defensive mentality, and sets in motion a controlled scramble for the ball that visibly bothers and disrupts the Raptors offense. Until the Raptors show an effective counter, I’m optimistic that the Cavaliers finally solved the Raptors puzzle.

Is SportsCenter doomed? The television sports highlight is dying a slow, painful death. It’s another tragic case of “Internet killed the video star.” The pain of suffering through agonizing minutes (sometimes almost a full hour!) through a full-fledged production to receive the morsels of in-game highlights we crave has given way to video on Tweets, Vines, Streamables, Youtube videos, and other forms of instantaneous gratification. (Unless it’s a baseball highlight, in which case, if Major League Baseball has its way, it will never be seen by anyone ever.)

This creates an interesting situation for SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program. SportsCenter began as a national sports program (a novelty at the time) that would replay in-game action with highlights to viewers across the country and the globe. But now, most of SportsCenter’s target viewers have the ability to preempt the program by finding highlights elsewhere — instantly — if they have even the slightest desire to see them. Suddenly, viewers can find what was once SportsCenter’s primary resource in dozens of other places, without any hassle. It’s like SportsCenter is rolling into town with a wagon full of food to relieve people who live inside a Golden Corral. The same could be said for any news or press conference tidbits, for which the media empire began using SportsCenter as a platform in its adolescence. Basically, what is SportsCenter’s value proposition to viewers in 2016? In the Age of Cord-Cutting, what benefit is SportsCenter providing consumers that isn’t already available elsewhere?

I’ve been thinking about this since last weekend, after I heard Stephen A. Smith admit on SportsCenter1 that he had no idea what the hell he was talking about (though I paraphrased him, the tweet below is shockingly close to what he actually said). Then I listened to Bryan Curtis’ excellent Serial-style Ringer podcast on the death of the highlight (on which current SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt shared both insights and fears), and read Awful Announcing discuss how ESPN is upping its Stephen A. Smith dosage on SportsCenter.

SportsCenter may not be salvageable (at least not by the network’s lofty standards). It may be a dying institution. But, assuming it can be revived, how does ESPN “fix” SportsCenter? Here are suggestions, some serious and some less so.2

  • Entrust the fate of the franchise in someone with talent, taste, and charisma; like, say, Scott Van Pelt. Give this individual or team the creative freedom to do whatever they want with the show, and trust that they’ll do something special with it.3
  • 1. Embrace Debate! 2. Give Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith the entire day to yell at each other; 3. Turn the thermostat to 95 to keep the hot takes coming; and 4. Put an icepick through the top of my skull.
  • Lower production costs by replacing all the SportsCenter anchors with robots. Then, the brand will be able to live forever without regard to viewer numbers. Like you would notice if they replaced Zubin Mehenti with a robot?
  • Make SportsCenter exclusively about the Cowboys, Yankees, and Lakers. Big markets! Numbers! Revenue!
  • Turn the entire hour into a panel of athletes sitting around the world’s most expensive conference room desk saying generic comments devoid of analysis or insight. Oh wait, that’s already NFL Live.
  • More eSports. There are few athletic feats more impressive than someone getting a triple-double of head shots in League of Warcraft. Did I do that right?
  • Turn the studio into an EDM dance studio, and drop the bass during the most dramatic part of a highlight. Think about it: A 2-2 count in the bottom of the eighth, down two, bases loaded. And the pitch. Bryce Harper swings and drives one to deep left … THEN Skrillex drops the bass, strobe lights and lasers vaporize your eyeballs, and Bryce Harper’s shot sails over the wall as fans go wild and teenagers with glow sticks lose their minds. It would be a huge hit in the 18-22 year olds — and they’re in the key demo!
  • Eliminate all editions of SportsCenter before 6 p.m. ET, and after midnight. This won’t fix or save SportsCenter, but they ought to do it anyway.
  • Follow Stephen A. Smith around for an hour, just having him yell at appliances and passerby, divulging generally false information supposedly passed to him by his celebrity friends.
  • Put the entire show on Snapchat, and like, put on a filter where the anchor is a tiger riding a skateboard or something. Whatever it is people do with Snapchat. Millennials will love it.
  • Did I hear 2022 Mock Draft? Someone go open Mel Kiper Jr.’s crypt.
  • Fully embrace the analytical approach: Let Zach Lowe and Tim Legler geek out over some game film for 20-25 minutes after a playoff game. Bring on Tom Haberstroh to discuss the statistics. Do more film segments with Jon Gruden, you know, when he’s not swinging a pool noodle at some poor quarterback prospect. Find a way to appeal to the most intelligent sports fans. Never mind, this will never work.
  • Repent past mistakes, and pay an obscene amount of money to Katie Nolan to come do something wacky and cool. Alternative savior: Lorne Michaels. If he can turn The Tonight Show into a hit with Jimmy Fallon, he can save SportsCenter.
  • More 3-D Arby’s ads in the studio. This one seems like a no-brainer, honestly.
  • Make anchors overcome a moat with alligators, a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, or a Raiders of the Lost Ark/Legends of the Hidden Temple challenge to get the opening shot sheet.
  • Sell it to Netflix.
  • Cut costs by playing highlight reels of already-televised cliches from years past. “OK, we had a player yell at a teammate on the sideline. … Can we a get a roll of ‘not a team player,’ ‘poor character,’ ‘need to be a leader,’ ‘not just about the Xs and Os,’ and ‘not how you win games in the National Football League’? Actually, just play the same one from last week.”
  • Just ask people on Twitter and Facebook what they want ESPN to show or do on SportsCenter. But not, like, in a way that seems desperate. Actually, just show a 60-minute live feed of mentions with #SportsCenterTop10. People want to be on TV!
  • Go low-fi/casual. Let Scott Van Pelt and Ryan Russillo slam National Bohemians in a wood-paneled basement and shoot the shit, complete with delivery pizza and home-cooked meals from Mama Van Pelt. For the Los Angeles edition of SportsCenter, have Neil Everett and Stan Verrett chill in a garage in tank tops and flip-flops talking about how “rad” that game was and how “stoked” they are for the Finals. They’re like me and my friends!
  • Intersperse sports coverage with nature stills and ambient noise, since 75 percent of all SportsCenter viewers are watching silently at the bar, trying to fall asleep, or doin’ it.
  • ESPN is owned by Disney, and Disney is totally willing to waste/dilute its IP from Star Wars. Have SportsCenter hosted by Boba Fett or Chewbacca or BB-88 and R2-D2. Unlike most of the ideas on this list, Disney/ESPN has at least considered this idea.
  • Have four people with ill-founded opinions yelling over one another on split screens, or as I call it, the CNN/Around the Horn plan.
  • Full viral, baby: nothing but trick shots, bad memes, and the latest Draymond Green groin kick.
  • Make it the sports version of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (note: NOT The Daily Show with Trevor Noah) for sports. Give someone with impeccable comedic timing, wit, and intolerance for BS a platform to skewer all that’s lazy, ignorant, or intellectually dishonest in the world of sports. Much like SportsCenter, TDS had to provide value to viewers who already knew everything that was going to be discussed on the show.4 (On second thought, tolerating BS and dishonesty is necessary for ESPN to maintain good relationships with the NCAA and every professional sports league.)
  • Just talk about DeflateGate for the rest of time. When DeflateGate is resolved, appeal it to the Supreme Court. That’s another 18 months of content right there. On today’s show, footnote 8 of the NFLPA’s amicus brief!
  • Two words: Costume. Corgis. I haven’t thought this idea totally through yet … but I know I’m onto something.
  • Build the broadcast around the interaction of people with actual chemistry and sound comedic sensibilities. You know, like Inside the NBA on TNT, but on ESPN.
  • Do a complete 180: nothing but highlights! No context or analysis! Consider adding more cartoon sound effects, “Yakety-Sax,” and fart noises. At least Stephen A Smith won’t be involved.
  • Create a sports/pop culture variety show around Bill Simmons. Think Grantland: The TV Show. Wait, ESPN did what with Grantland??? Well, that just seems like poor decision-making.
  • Have SportsCenter co-hosted by the current Bachelor or Bachelorette. Women viewers will double overnight … to four.
  • Just show 12 hours of “This is SportsCenter” commercials all day. Actually, I genuinely like this idea. Those commercials are fantastic.

Your Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. Someone tell the Browns they don’t need 15 years of Fs to keep expectations low.

calvin.cs

And now for the random ’90s song of the day. With the Cavaliers heading all the way to another country for Friday’s Game 5, it’s fitting that the R90SotD has a little international flair: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Around the World.” It’s a great album opener for a great album: 1999’s Californication. Flea thunders away on his bass, announcing that some serious rocking is about to ensue (hopefully much like Tristan Thompson will do on the boards on Friday night). Then, Anthony Kiedis unleashes a primal yell before doing his weird rap-rock thing while John Frusciante plucks away. The music video appears to start with the premise of, “What if our music studio was, like, on the sun?” Ohio gets a shoutout, while Toronto is ignored. Take that, Canada!

I saw God and I saw the fountains
You and me girl, sitting in the Swiss mountains
Me Oh My O, Me and Guy O
Freer than a bird `cause we’re rocking Ohio!

  1. I had left ESPN on in the background while preparing to leave the house. []
  2. Believe it or not, I actually do want to improve SportsCenter. I grew up with SportsCenter, and have appreciated what it’s stood for since I was a child. I admire many things ESPN does, and I openly despise many things ESPN does. But I want ESPN to do things that are good for sportsviewers, much in the same way I want my local or federal government to do things that are good for people. It’s worth noting that I stopped watching SportsCenter regularly ten years ago, and it’s hard to imagine a future in which the program entices me. But because I watch so much sports, I often see SportsCenter incidentally — it’s on in the background as I cook or clean or do work or check email. For that reason, it may not be in ESPN’s best interest to totally abandon viewers like myself. []
  3. As far as I can tell, Scott Van Pelt has been given the latitude to do almost whatever he wants with the midnight edition of SportsCenter (which is still young at this point), though I don’t know how much good it’s doing when Van Pelt’s version of SC is buried beneath somewhere between 4 and 12 other conventional, indistinguishable daily editions of SportsCenter. []
  4. This isn’t unlike Scott Van Pelt’s “One Big Thing” segment in which he ripped the hypocrisy of daily fantasy sports versus “gambling.” []

  • Steve

    Bill Simmons, whose business strategy to producing good content was spend himself out of business.

    Bill Simmons, who created a “gambling manifesto” that has hard and fast rules that have to be updated every year because those hard and fast rules end up not exactly working out. This is a prime example of Simmons work. Something half-baked pops in his head watching a sporting event, he goes “I need to tell everyone about my profound discovery”, and he acts like he’s the guy who invented the wheel.

  • mgbode

    Bill Simmons has many flaws, but some of those flaws are why he is good at certain things.

    He built his brand on being an idiot sports nut. Everything from his columns to his discussions to even the 30for30 & Grantland was based on him wanting sports to be fun an entertaining. Sometimes that meant smart too…sometimes not.

    He also came across as an egotistical jerk who was so beyond a homer for his own teams you had to ignore anything he had to say about them.

    Oh, and for Grantland, his premise was you lose money on something with so much quality because it is worth it and will make those consumers loyal to your overall brand.

  • mgbode

    Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Buffalo Bills

  • mgbode

    A chance to share with my kids the stuff that I enjoyed as a kid is fantastic. They don’t want to watch my old dilapidated graphic versions though, so they get their own. It is the reason you always see the 35-45yo demographic have their childhood relived.

  • Steve

    I find the sometimes smart, sometimes not to be overly generous to him.

    I get the general idea that he wants sports to be fun, but the guy is so thin-skinned, so self-righteous, and so whiny about the teams from probably the most successful sports town of the past decade, that I don’t buy for a second he wants to inject the opinion of the average joe sports fan, but to tell you how brilliant he was.

    As far as Grantland, there was no way ESPN picked it up and ran with it with the thought of it being a loss leader. Who was going to find Grantland, and then stumble their way over to ESPN? All the traffic moved in the opposite direction. Grantland’s audience was limited to people who already knew ESPN and were seeking out sports information. Those people already watched ESPN, or were people intentionally avoiding ESPN, and weren’t going to be tricked to go from Zach Lowe NBA piece to Stephen A.’s.

    He had no problem losing everyone else’s money, and would perpetually whine when he didn’t get his way. There’s a reason he didn’t try to make something similar work on his own, instead seeking the financial backing of HBO.

  • nj0

    I’m squarely in Steve’s corner on this one. For the life of me, I have never understood the praise for Simmons.

    And what was Grantland’s big innovation? Pay good writers to write stuff on topics that aren’t really related? And lose money in doing so? Say what you will about Deadspin or Bleacher Report, but at least they’ve found a way to produce content while remaining fiscally solvent (pre-Hogan debacle, of course).

    And don’t get me started on 30 for 30. “Make short sports documentaries”. That’s GENIUS, Bill! We never noticed that people LIKE sports!

  • nj0

    Glad to know I’m not the only one hip to what Marvel has become.

  • humboldt
  • mgbode

    You need to separate Simmons the person/brand (I largely agree with your assessment) with Simmons the business.

    Grantland was my indicator in the sometimes smart, sometimes not. There was a mixture of both on the platform and what I think Simmons wanted sports to be.

    Yes, ESPN traffic flowed to G/L, not the other way. But, those who went to G/L also theoretically would remain more loyal to the flagship. It is not what happened and ultimately what shut it down far more than the site being in the red IMO. Simmons the person got in the way of Simmons the business on that one.

    I never said Simmons wants to speak for Joe Fan. He wants sports to be entertaining. When he’s writing/speaking, that means for him personally. But, he also wants others to make it entertaining for others and that is where he added value to the landscape.

    Also, Simmons has been on the leading edge for things. He was among the first to mix pop culture and sports overly on a national stage (and one of leaders of Page-2). Though not my thing, he was one of the first really pushing podcasting. He was one of biggest voices making ESPN realize there was a market for 30for30 type pieces. And, G/L, while not a $$$-monster, had a dedicated audience as people appreciate good writing.

    Many, many, many things I dislike about Simmons, but he does deserve some credit too.

  • RGB

    C’mon, is this REALLY news?

  • Steve

    It’s hard to separate Simmons the person from Simmons the business because he demands the two be intertwined. Just like you can’t just get Lebron the player, but you have to take on Lebron the coach and Lebron the GM, you can’t just get Simmons the writer. He requires you to take on Simmons the guy who whines on live TV that he hasn’t gotten his turn to talk yet.

    I can’t believe anyone at ESPN really thought they would find new loyal viewers from Grantland. Like I said, ESPN already had locked up any and all sports fans they were going to get. If that’s remotely true, Simmons best skill is convincing people to burn money on him.

    As far as being on the leading edge? I find it tough to tell. His pop culture references still seem to be mainly his favorite 80s movies. I’m not sure he’s a pop-culture expert, as much as simply just a huge Roadhouse fan. Podcasting is just radio on a different technology, and listening to a couple idiots banter on about sports to pass the time in the car, at work, or at the gym is a longtime tradition. And GL wasn’t just not a $$$-monster, but a $$$-sucking monster. It was the equivalent of the Yankees signing every FA, except that if they spent more than even they could afford.

    Simmons seems to get (and take) credit for people liking more sports stuff, like nj0 mentioned. It really does seem like his primary skill is convincing people to burn money. Which, as long as it’s not mine, I guess that’s fine.

  • woofersus

    I’m on Bode’s side here. Bill said and wrote idiotic things sometimes, but I always felt like it was mostly intentional mugging for fun and not the kind of chest-beating hot-takery that the mothership has become so famous for. I thought that besides the paying for talented writers, he deserves at least some credit for the content of that site as managing editor, and it was one of my favorite sports sites. (after WFNY and Fangraphs, of course) And of course it’s also well-established the other things at ESPN he was responsible for, and most of them were among the best things ESPN had going on.

    I don’t know what the P&L situation was for Grantland as a business unit, and I don’t expect anybody went into that venture planning to be a loss leader, but I seem to recall his departure was as much about him wanting more money when his contract was up as it was anything else, and ESPN has a pretty long history of not wanting any of its employees to get bigger than the brand. In many cases where he fought against the man at ESPN, I thought he was right. He’s the guy who got suspended for criticizing First Take, for criticizing Goodell on the Ray Rice thing before the network decided that was the marketable thing to do, and for accidentally pissing off Keith Olberman multiple times, which is sort of a measure of being a reasonable guy. I didn’t care of the twitter flame wars and stuff, but my interaction with Simmons was almost always in a journalistic capacity.

  • woofersus

    While that’s true, I think that producing content is a little like being a chef. You want to make what people will buy and eat, but if you only pander to their most base tastes, they’ll actually lose interest. It’s like noticing that a little salt makes your cookies taste better and then assuming a ton of salt must make all deserts great. ESPN, during the “embrace debate” era, decided that all shows have to include that kind of format, which not only spends an inordinate amount of time on a single topic that has probably been covered on three other shows already by 10am and slows down the delivery of something that most younger viewers want in fairly rapid-fire fashion, but also eliminates strong distinction between shows and waters down your stronger brands. I don’t blame them for playing the hits – they’re a for-profit business and they will generate content that will make them money – but upon discovering the shooting star that was First Take after it evolved into present from from Cold Pizza they ignored longer-term media consumption trends and just assumed all the shows would be better with the same transformation. It was idiotic, and they have clearly suffered for it.

  • woofersus

    ESPN is the king of “if some was good, more will clearly be better.” As good as Mike & Mike is doing, I’m surprised they don’t just go to a daily 6hr telethon. Obviously nobody ever gets tired of anything.

  • woofersus

    I don’t actually think ESPN is doing much to appeal to millennials. I think that’s actually their huge blind spot. Millennials like satire and commentary broken into bite-sized, Youtube-able chunks, and both Comedy Central and now HBO have made gold out of that format knowing that their bread is buttered on subscription fees and not advertising. The last thing millennials want is to tune into a solid hour of discussion over whether or not it breaks the unwritten rules of baseball to try and distract a pitcher by wiggling your fingers in a certain way during his windup, or hear a bunch of former athletes talk about how the game used to be back in their day, when the ball was eight times heavier and people were allowed to stab you with sickles while you were touching it.

    While there are small nuggets of younger-viewer focus, mostly they are looking at race and gender demographics. Their dominant position means they aren’t competing so much with other sports shows as the freaking Price is Right.

  • Steve

    But the dishes with a little bit of salt, say Outside the Lines, simply don’t draw in viewers. Because it was discussed below, Grantland was the same. It was different, it had a dedicated fanbase, it still was not popular enough to keep alive.

    I know there are many critical voices of ESPN, and they are losing viewers, but yet, they still dominate the sports landscape at all hours of the day. They’re still providing sports consumers with what they want better than anyone else. That it’s crap is on us, not them.

  • woofersus

    They drew less viewers, but I don’t know if enough data is publicly available to say they didn’t draw viewers generally. It feels like ESPN bosses sought to make all of their shows in the image of their highest performing shows with the idea that they would all then draw similarly well. I reject this notion, and their falling ratings would back that up. There are different demographics and segments out there, and abandoning all but one of them doesn’t generally increase market share. Of course they could fall a long way and still be “the mothership,” but their dominant position may be a remnant of past successful strategy rather than an indication of current successful strategy. (edit: I recognize shrinking in market footprint but being more profitable is a valid strategy – if this is what they are intentionally doing, then kudos I guess)

    Of course there are other issues and I don’t mean to oversimplify. I think its also problematic that they made this hard shift toward editorializing rather than journalism on the TV and Radio outlets and make the content much more about the person delivering it than the actual substance AFTER they’ve worked hard for years to ensure no employee was bigger than the brand, jettisoning popular hosts and anchors as they got popular and expensive. I don’t think you can be both the “personalities” network and the “generic suits sitting by the logo” network at the same time. You end up with a small number of people who haven’t priced themselves out yet but are recognizable names dominating all conversations. Case in point: http://awfulannouncing.com/2016/espn-turned-sportscenter-into-stephen-a-smith-center-and-it-was-awful.html Who’s the guy on the left? Why would I want his take? I guess I need Stephen A for this.