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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.

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