‘Everything starts with the audience’: How ESPN’s ‘SportsCenter’ has moved beyond its TV roots
By Sahil Patel
“SportsCenter,” ESPN’s flagship news show, has been on the air since 1979 — back when the biggest threat to TV was cable.
That’s no longer the case, as consumer adoption of Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms has forced media companies to adapt how they develop, create and distribute video content. “SportsCenter” continues to be a cultural touchstone, however. An average of 115 million viewers still watch the show every month, according to ESPN. It’s become one of the biggest accounts on Instagram, with 267 million views in December alone, according to Tubular Labs.
This wasn’t by accident; ESPN has taken steps over the past few years to evolve “SportsCenter” from a daily news show to a multi-platform media brand. We talked to “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt and senior vp Rob King about how the “SportsCenter” of today is different from the “SportsCenter” of a decade ago.
Excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott, you’ve previously said the ‘SportsCenter’ of the Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann era could not work today. Why?
Scott Van Pelt: There’s a reverence that we have for those who preceded us. Dan and Keith 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 fullscreen 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.
If you know you’re dealing with an audience that more than likely knows the outcome, how do you create content that they’re going to be interested in? Maybe they’re interested in what my opinion is or a more thoughtful or clever treatment of an outcome. There’s still room for the highlight. It’s just that you have to figure out what you put in and around that highlight.
How has that changed how ESPN approaches each ‘SportsCenter’ episode?
Rob King: We’re on 15 to 16 hours a day, but we’re on for very specific audiences. Rather than trying to create one monolithic “SportsCenter,” we have to think about what people are doing at various times of the day. By midnight, most people know the headlines and so it’s important to provide context around the headlines. That’s different from, say, 7 a.m., when people are waking up. Those people may not have stayed up late to see a West Coast game, so they’re interested in what happened.
Is that why you are also investing in social platforms, like Instagram?
RK: We count Instagram as a real success, because it tells us that there are things we can do on other platforms that are native to those platforms. It tells us we need to continue to experiment with things like vertical video, or subtitling, …read more