ESPN's SportsCenter Continues to Change World of Sports After 50,000 Episodes

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ESPN's SportsCenter Continues to Change World of Sports After 50,000 Episodes
Via ESPN

From the iconic jingle to the hilarious commercials to the never-ending barrage of replays and highlights that tell us the stories of games we missed or want to relive again and again, ESPN's SportsCenter reaches the astounding milestone of 50,000 episodes on Thursday evening, Sept. 13, cementing its legacy as one of the most important television programs in the history of the medium.

Let's get right to the point: Without SportsCenter, sports highlights would largely have been a regional enterprise, hosted in four-minute segments on the late local news with the occasional "sports extra" segment rounding near midnight once a week.

Without SportsCenter, we could never imagine wall-to-wall coverage of sporting events from around the world at the touch of our remote control, cropped and narrated into easily digestible nuggets of sports goodness, seemingly every hour on the hour around the clock.

Without SportsCenter and subsequent shows like it, many of us in this profession wouldn't be here. High school and college kids—heck, even professionals—would have no national Top 10 to dream of making every day in practice.

It is rather amazing that no show in the history of television has aired more original episodes than ESPN's SportsCenter.

Granted, the show is on for literally 18 hours a day now, so we could be celebrating its 100,000th episode sometime around next March if the trend continues.

Former SportsCenter anchor Charley Steiner, who was part of an ESPN conference call with current anchors Scott Van Pelt and Sage Steele and ESPN VP Mark Gross to discuss SportsCenter's epic milestone, joked, "You talk about 18 hours a day; we didn't have 18 hours a week! It is so mind-boggling to think back where we were when I got there in '88 and to where SportsCenter is now."

It is mind-boggling to think about how many stars in our profession came from the relatively humble roots of giving fans quick (and sometimes quirky) explanations of highlights for an hour each day. 

Bob Ley, an icon at ESPN who has been with the Worldwide Leader since the network's start, shared with me his thoughts on the show he helped make into a television institution: 

SportsCenter is the ultimate proof that our network doesn't have viewers, it has fans, and it's that affinity between folks at home and those of us lucky enough to be doing this that fuels the spirit which built, sustained and will guide the network into the future. 

I say network. It's really a brand, but the heartbeat of it all—radio, online, digital, tablets, magazine and stuff that hasn't even been invented yet—the heartbeat of it all is SportsCenter.

I'm not the first to admit that my SportsCenter viewing has waned in the last half decade, relying more on instantaneous highlights cut up and put online before the copyright hawks pull them down so we are forced to watch them on show like, yes, SportsCenter

There are also more competitors on cable TV now than ever. Those tired of SportsCenter anchors jumping over every highlight to coin the next great sports catch phrase—Van Pelt told us most anchors are not "out there trying out for the Chuckle Hut," calling that method "failing"—have more options than they could ever need to consume highlights and sports information on a daily basis.

Steiner offered that being the headliner at the Chuckle Hut was never the goal, even back when the chuckles seemed to be fastest way for an anchor to make a name for him or herself: 

All we did was go out and be who we were and then it sort of chemically evolved into what SportsCenter became. But nobody tried to go out to be intentionally funny. Those who did, didn't last very long.

While any new sports news program will fall inside SportsCenter's enormous shadow by simple nature of being what's "next," those in charge at ESPN need to stay aware of how fans are consuming our information in a growing digital environment. Fewer and fewer people need the 11:00 p.m. SportsCenter with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann or Van Pelt and Stuart Scott or whichever anchor falls into the rotation this week to be a final destination for sports highlights before they go to bed. 

We are a far savvier audience than in years past, finding news and information through social media way before a TV show can cut it up.

Sage Steele (via ESPN)

During the conference call, Van Pelt, Steele and Gross must have mentioned social media and specifically Twitter a dozen times as a direct line of either competition or assistance, in some cases both. Steele mentioned that ESPN doesn't necessarily have a list of things they need to get to in every show, because social media, even more than ratings, allows them to listen directly to the fans:

Obviously, some things will be more important. No one has to tell us that. The numbers tell us that. The fans tell us that. Social media is bigger than ever. Social media has been so helpful because they pretty much tell us what they want, and tell us what they don't want as well.

Van Pelt warned that the notion of catering to fans or directing that path of what fans talk about is a "which came first" situation: 

I do wonder about chicken-and-egg, how much of it is us dictating what the numbers say and then how much do the numbers say what we are supposed to do. I do wonder how much do we dictate and how much to the numbers from people watching elsewhere dictate what we do on the show.

In other words, if SportsCenter is on 18 hours a day, should 14 of those hours be about Tim Tebow, even if it was his birthday? Is that was the fans want, or is that ESPN driving the bus? Can it be both?

Should it be both? With more and more options for fans to find news, SportsCenter will need to become less of a thought leader in the space. They can't show us Lakers highlights because we've been conditioned to care about big-market teams; they must show us Lakers highlights because more fans of that team are watching, downloading and streaming. All those metrics are extremely measurable now, and SportsCenter needs to adapt to the on-demand world in order to reach another 50,0000 shows, or whatever a "show" will be in 15 years. 

Gross explained:

The goal is to make SportsCenter available wherever and whenever fans want it. If it's on TV, if it's on ESPN.com or the phone or the iPad, the ultimate goal or what we are working towards, because the world is changing every day, is that people can get their SportsCenter wherever they want their SportsCenter, and whenever.

If the question after 50,000 episodes of SportsCenter is will ESPN get to 100,000, the answer almost certainly is yes, especially if they consider producing specialized versions of the show that push out to mobile devices for fans to trim the fat of the hour-long national show. If I only care about baseball, or National League East baseball, I won't sit through an hour-long show with 38 minutes on NFL highlights. But if ESPN can send me all the clips from their TV show that pertain to my interests, technically I'm still watching SportsCenter. 

This is not a new concept—the success of things like Bleacher Report's Team Stream app is proof of that—but if that hyper-localized content can be packaged as "SportsCenter," the brand will certainly survive and thrive well beyond Show 50,000 this week. 

No matter where it goes, it has been incredible to see where SportsCenter is today, looking back from where it once was. On September 7, 1979, SportsCenter began as a small sports news program on a cable television startup most people hadn't even seen. Just 12,060 days later—give or take a leap day—the program has helped take ESPN, in Steiner's words, from "a mom-and-pop store that's turned into this four-letter icon."

BONUS: I had a chance for some fun during the call, asking Steiner about his trademark beard. Here is that part of the call.

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