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Boo-yah! This is Sports Center!

If they didn't work there, many of the SportsCenter anchors and production assistants would be as glued to their sets
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

It's mid-morning in early March, and the air is crystal clear outside the Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters of ESPN, the multichannel cable sports network. Inside the SportsCenter "idea" meeting, the atmosphere is far murkier. The sports world refuses to cooperate with those behind the popular sportscast. It's spring training season in baseball, the NBA and NHL playoffs are still weeks away, and NCAA March Madness is just around the corner. Looking over the uninspiring lineup put together that morning by the senior production staff, SportsCenter anchor Matt Winer says, "There just isn't much news."

That's why the 20 or so production assistants (PAs), the three anchors, various other crew members and producer Josh Bernstein come together each morning in a conference room just off the SportsCenter newsroom. Even if there is little to make viewers stand up and shout back at the screen, the SportsCenter staff needs to fill an hour of live television with sports coverage that "…entertains, educates, informs and gets great ratings. It has to create things people in the sports world talk about," says John Walsh, ESPN's senior vice president and executive editor.

Without much to work with, generating even a hum will take creativity. Lots of it. But there's no shortage of inventiveness in the room—along with humor, reporting accuracy and a big dose of fun—to produce the first of the day's four hours of live sports news that have made SportsCenter the most watched sportscast in the country. Like Pavlov's dog, 18 million people a day and 88 million people a month come running when they hear the six-note SportsCenter theme music at 6 and 11 p.m. and 1 and 2 a.m., or the morning-long repeat broadcasts. It's cable television's longest-running and most successful daily show, and rivals any regular network show for audience loyalty and value to advertisers.

Fast approaching a quarter-century on the air, SportsCenter broadcast its 25,000th live show in the summer of 2002, the first television program in history to reach that milestone (not even "Meet the Press," the evening news shows, or "Saturday Night Live" has reached that apex.) That's a lot of live TV. If you were to broadcast one show after another, that would amount to nearly three years of nonstop sports news.

On this winter day, it looks as if it will take a long stretch by the SportsCenter crew to produce a broadcast that will be much more than background noise while viewers prepare dinner. These are the people to make them burn the steak. The idea meeting room is filled mostly with clean-cut, casually dressed young men and a handful of women. These fresh-faced PAs can relate Shaq's shoe size (22EEE) and career free-throw percentage (54 percent), George Blanda's age when he retired (48) and how old Jerry Rice will be when his contract runs out (46), and baseball's last 30-game winner (Denny McLain) and what his last arrest was for (a pension fund swindle). The PAs also provide SportsCenter with an in-house focus group. They hail from the show's main (and advertisers' coveted) 18 to 34 demographic, which is better than three-quarters male and can't get enough sports.

No wonder they think this job is the coolest in the world. They get to talk sports, watch games and choose highlights, interview sports personalities, produce stories and get paid to spend their workday putting together a package of coverage that their friends have to pay to watch. If they weren't working here, they'd be at home watching. Anchor Scott Van Pelt says that before coming to ESPN from the Golf Channel more than two years ago to cover golf, "I watched more SportsCenter than any man not incarcerated or medicated. Now I get to do it. It's the best gig going. I don't have a job. My father was a plumber. He had a job. I talk about sports on television. I work hard at it, but it's not a job."

It may not be a job, but keeping the show fresh is a daily challenge for the 6 o'clock crew. The late-night SportsCenter broadcasts come after most of the day's games are over and can draw on the more than 200 hours of games and events, from all the day's major sports to dog shows, hot-dog-eating contests and spelling bees that get screened for SportsCenter's use each day. Every year, SportsCenter airs some 11,000 video highlights, but comparatively few of those show up on the 6 p.m. broadcast. "We don't have games to recap and highlights. Ideas are what keep it fresh," says Winer, who now co-anchors the 6 p.m. broadcast with Dan Patrick. "You have to find devices to make the stories more interesting."

Although the anchors write their own copy for each broadcast, Winer says, "The PAs are the lifeblood of SportsCenter. They're big sports fans. They bring in pop culture and other stuff I may not know about. They make it so much more fun." The idea meeting is where they get to strut their stuff. "Anyone from the newest PA to an anchor can speak up," Winer adds. "Everybody has their own allegiances. It makes for good debate and good trash talking."

Today, the lead story appears to be the ruckus New York Yankees pitcher David Wells has caused with the publication of his autobiography, Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball. Wells is supposedly planning to make a statement about the book at the Yankees' spring training camp in Florida later in the day. It's a pretty weak headline to revolve a broadcast around. Bernstein says, "I think the lead has to be David Wells, but it's up for debate."

The ideas quickly start flying. So do the jokes. Nothing is out of bounds. Stretching his 6-foot, 4-inch frame across the top of a large filing cabinet, Van Pelt suggests, "Let's get [Yankees general manager Brian] Cashman, [owner George] Steinbrenner and Wells for a roundtable discussion," which would be a recipe for a smashup and is as likely to happen as getting Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and George Bush together for a debate.

Like a group at a bull session, the PAs are soon throwing ideas into the hopper. Some tempers flare as suggestions get shot down. With the NCAA about to announce selections for the collegiate basketball tourney, Bernstein asks, "Any ideas for college ball?" Someone suggests doing a SportsCenter review of college teams in a takeoff on "Are You Hot?", a reality show in which contestants from around the country are paraded out and rated for their sex appeal. Winer does a pretty good imitation of Lorenzo Lamas and Rachel Hunter, two of the celebrity hosts of "Are You Hot?" The room cracks up. "That's good TV," says Bernstein.

Bernstein runs down the list of possible story topics and the several regular advertiser-sponsored pieces, such as the SportsCenter Top 10 Plays recap; the "Budweiser Hotseat," a one-on-one with athletes; and February's "Plays of the Month," which are already in the can. Other stories include a possible follow-up with Jim Herrick, the University of Georgia men's basketball coach who was accused a week earlier by a disgruntled former player, Tony Cole, of paying for some of Cole's personal expenses and of having Herrick's son, a physical education teacher at the school, give A grades to players for a class they never attended. Still uncertain about the lead, Bernstein assigns PAs and anchors stories that need to be ready to air seven hours from now.

The broadcast's lineup may be in place, but anything can happen. "That framework can change radically," says Winer. "The whole thing's in flux until 7 o'clock when the show is over. Sometimes I walk on the set and don't know what's coming."

That is the essence of SportsCenter, according to longtime SportsCenter anchor and football and baseball announcer Chris Berman. "If you love sports," he says, "there's no script any night. You go in with a blank slate. There's an upset, a great performance, a shocker every day. Man, I say, let the game come to you."

That approach—call it controlled mayhem—has been the non-formula that has made SportsCenter the crown jewel and, in many ways, the heart of the burgeoning ESPN empire. ESPN, launched in 1979 during cable television's infancy, was originally conceived as a showcase for Connecticut-based sports. But its backer (Getty Oil Co.) soon realized it could tap into a gold mine if they expanded to a national network. SportsCenter was ESPN's first program, airing at 7 p.m., Eastern Time, on September 7, 1979. Soon, a 24-hour, all-sports network was born.

"Back then," recalls Berman, who, as a 24-year-old, joined SportsCenter just a month after its launch, "sports news was three minutes at 6 and 11 on the local news. No one had ever tried to do a national, live sports news show daily, let alone three times a day. People said, 'Are you guys nuts?' Who knew? We didn't know if we were going to make it."

At its start, 75 people worked for ESPN out of a small building in Bristol, Connecticut, which is about a 20-minute drive into the New England countryside from Hartford and about as far from being a major sports or media center as you can get. Berman says of those early days, "There weren't any rules. We had to invent it as we went along."

Soon sports fans began to pay attention. Berman, who worked the then 3 a.m. shows that were repeated the next day, recalls people stopping him, asking him if he was the sports guy. Berman's nicknaming of players, the innovative use of highlight videos, and the humor that the various anchors displayed, combined with solid reporting, made for good TV. The anchors seemed to be regular sports nuts, just like the fans. "I try to bring the same enthusiasm for sports I had lying on my couch watching SportsCenter," says Van Pelt. "I'm just a sports fan telling you what happened."

In the early days, SportsCenter had more than a few moments when the mayhem was not so controlled. Not quite amateur hour, but at one time or another panels of lights fell, highlights got mixed, pizza deliverymen walked across the set during broadcasts, and anchors mangled their lines. "There were times when the video went out and the audio was still on," recalls Berman. "I did Harry Chapin, you know, 'I am the morning DJ on W-O-L-D.'" He shrugs and says, "People understand. Just be human about it. I have a saying: If you screw up, it's live TV. It's on its way to Pluto."

Players, too, liked having a daily national platform and enjoyed SportsCenter's unique style. Berman was at a Kansas City Royals baseball game in the early 1980s, when future Hall of Famer George Brett came up to him and asked what his own nickname was. Recalls Berman, "I said I didn't have one. He told me to come see him after batting practice. Later on in the locker room, Brett said to me, 'I got one. "Chris 'Ethel Merman' Berman.'" I couldn't believe he'd been thinking one up all that time."

With their devotion to accuracy and fun, the anchors and reporters won the respect of the sports world. SportsCenter eventually became the voice of record for sports. When ESPN signed on to broadcast Sunday NFL football games in 1987, Berman remembers thinking, "My God, we're here to stay."

Today, SportsCenter is part of a multimedia empire, and ESPN is a 3,500-employee subsidiary of Disney that includes six separate domestic networks, 25 international networks, a 700-station syndicate radio network, a national magazine and even a chain of sports-themed ESPN Zone restaurants. And sports legends and current stars such as Curt Shilling, Evander Holyfield and Gordie Howe regularly make the pilgrimage to Bristol, either to work as analysts or to appear in SportsCenter promos.

"Who would guess that celebrity sighting would become a sport in Bristol?" says Walsh. "After all," as The New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden wrote in 2002, "'everyone wants to have a cameo on SportsCenter.'"

The hundreds of award-winning promos, with their college mascots engaged in running battles through the ESPN halls, anchors chipping golf balls into radar dishes, Lance Armstrong generating the network's electricity on his bike, and more, create their own kind of buzz and have become as much a part of American sports culture as Super Bowl Sunday, horse racing's Triple Crown and the Curse of the Bambino.

The atmosphere they project, "We're big-time and small-time," as Berman puts it, reflects the clubby and frenzied character of the SportsCenter newsroom, where the lights never go out. Longtime late-night anchor Linda Cohn describes it as like "a college dorm floor. We're all in it together. We have a lot in common with each other. We just don't have to fight for the shower."

Cohn is one of a several women who have helped ESPN pioneer the increasingly accepted place of women on the playing field and in the broadcast booth, even for men's sports. "My best compliment," she says, "is the fact they watch me and don't think: guy, gal. Of course," she says and laughs, "when a kid at a University of Tulsa basketball game wrote 'Linda Cohn is hot' on his chest, SportsCenter had to put it on the air. I said, 'Wow, I'm impressed he spelled the name right.'"

That sort of lightheartedness and breezy quick response is par for the course for SportsCenter. "We take our sports seriously," says Van Pelt, "but we don't take ourselves seriously."

Former anchor Rich Eisen, who regularly paired with Stuart Scott for the 11 p.m. show, said, "We're encouraged to have fun. There needs to be a lot of freedom. That's the beauty of the show. Freedom of expression has to be fostered, not regimented." Sitting in his small office packed with sports and SportsCenter memorabilia, he gestures to a framed Mad magazine comic that made fun of SportsCenter and says, "That's the pinnacle. I used to read that in summer camp." Unlike Mad, he says, "we walk a fine line all the time. There're always arguments over what's over the line. You want to add comment in a way that's not being partial. You can speak your spots when there's bald-faced silliness going on. That's why people watch us. We watch sports from a journalistic point of view and with an arched eyebrow."

Sports news is not always just what happens on the field. Many athletes keep making headlines after the game ends. "We have to make judgments all the time," says executive editor Walsh. "It's no different than reporting on politics to a certain degree. We have a unique mixture, covering ephedra [the weight-loss supplement that may have played a role in the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler during spring training], or Mario's shot or Bonds's home run. SportsCenter is serious when it has to be and a relief from war news, so you have a place to go not to be inundated with those kinds of stories."

By mid-afternoon, what started off as a nonnews day at SportsCenter has made a complete U-turn. "We have more news than we can do," says producer Bernstein. "We're starting the whole show from scratch." During a long and testy on-camera interview with veteran basketball announcer Dick Vitale that afternoon, Georgia coach Herrick denied the charges by Cole (some of which were later substantiated, leading to the coach's resignation). On top of that, the St. Bonaventure University men's basketball team announced it would not play the rest of its season after a player was found to be academically ineligible, forcing the school to forfeit numerous games. And then, former Florida State University quarterback Adrian McPherson was charged with betting on college and professional games, including Florida State games he played in. The news about Wells' comments about his book has been pushed far down in the show's lineup.

"I have carpal tunnel from typing so many changes," says Bernstein. In adjoining cubicles, the anchors edit their copy furiously. The noise level in the cavernous newsroom from shouts, public announcements over a loudspeaker, and telephone conversations approaches that in the Staples Center during playoffs. "Chaos has broken loose," says Van Pelt, who was the co-anchor of the 6 p.m. broadcast at the time this story was written. "It's the nature of the beast. You have to adjust."

With 10 minutes until show time, Van Pelt, Winer and Cara Capuano, who will be recapping the day's news twice during the broadcast, exchange jeans and sneakers for business suits and head to the SportsCenter set in a neighboring building.

Van Pelt and Winer take their places at one desk, Capuano at another. Bernstein is in the control room from where he and his staff cue up tapes and tell the anchors what's next. Vitale's interview with Herrick takes the lead spot. SportsCenter will run nine straight minutes of interview. "That's a lifetime on TV," says Bernstein. "It's not compelling visuals, but it's the right thing to do with a big story like this."

For the rest of the hour, the other stories, none running longer than about a minute, follow rapidly, connected by the anchors' introductions and commentary. When the commercials come on, the anchors joke with the crew. The program is running long and one segment will have to be dropped. Nobody breaks a sweat. "Josh [Bernstein] is really good about telling us what's going to happen so you don't end up with that awful deer-in-the-headlights look," says Winer. Adds Van Pelt: "I'm comfortable enough that when something's gone haywire, I can just laugh."

Throughout the broadcast, the two interject quips. When Van Pelt reports the signing of running back Richie Anderson by the Dallas Cowboys, he adds what he terms "critical information" that Anderson went to Sherwood High School. What he doesn't mention is that he attended the same Maryland high school. Who knew? Who cared? Somebody in the audience did and surely appreciated the gesture.


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