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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

(continued from page 1)

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."

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