Ranking the 10 Best Anchors in SportsCenter History
Over the last 30 years, ESPN’s flagship franchise has grown—from obscure cable outpost to subversive, hip groundbreaker to journalistic hegemon—largely on the strength of its on-air personalities.
From Chris Berman on through to Scott Van Pelt, the SportsCenter anchors give context to our games and the athletes that play them. With their snark, bombast and, at times, sincerity, they’ve skillfully bridged the worlds of sport and culture in ways previously unimagined.
With that as introduction, I now pay tribute to the 10 best anchors in the show’s illustrious history.
Honorable Mentions en Masse
No individual mentions for any of these folks, but I do have fond memories of each. If it's any consolation, guys, you helped raised me.*
Mike Greenberg, Jay Harris, Steve Levy, Trey Wingo, Josh Elliott, Hannah Storm, Stan Verrett, Chris McKendry, John Buccigross, Karl Ravech, John Anderson, Rich Eisen, Gary Miller, Kevin Negandhi
*Just now realizing that is little to no consolation.
Solo Honorable Mention Part I: Brian Kenny
Kenny’s anchoring skills are only so-so, but his interview mastery alone moves him onto this list.
Whether he’s talking to ESPN experts or professional athletes, Kenny has a way of eliciting strong responses and promoting stimulating conversation.
His interviews with grandstanding middleweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. turned daytime SportsCenter into must-see fare, and unlike most other anchors, he never shies from expressing his own opinions. His work on ESPNews’ The Hot List was some of the best content that network has produced.
Solo Honorable Mention Part II: Charley Steiner
Though the glasses did him no favors, Steiner could play straight man or satirist with equal aplomb.
Blessed with the smooth baritone and quick wit of a radio man, Steiner headed ESPN’s boxing coverage in the 1990s before moving onto play-by-play for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
His chortling analysis of Carl Lewis’ hideous national anthem remains among the greatest moments in SportsCenter history.
Solo Honorable Mention Part II: Neil Everett
Moving Everett to the West Coast along with co-anchor Stan Verrett for the late-night Los Angeles SportsCenter has helped revive the show in recent years.
Everett’s laid-back style and penchant for surf slang oozes California cool, and has branded the late-night edition with the sort of personality it has lacked since Craig Kilborn left the franchise.
Everett’s a relative newcomer, but he boasts big-time potential.
10. Craig Kilborn
In the mid-'90s, Kilborn imbued late-night sports with a comedy-hour edge that helped distinguish the SportsCenter franchise.
Calling his 2:00 a.m. slot the “Feel Good” edition, Kilborn gained a loyal following with an assortment of offbeat catchphrases, ranging from alluringly simple (“JUMANJI!) to ticklishly obscure (“The red blood cell count is up, OH HEMOGLOBIN!”)
In later years he would become “the guy before Jon Stewart” on The Daily Show, and “the guy before Craig Ferguson” on The Late Late Show, both labels that will likely stick and also sell Kilborn short.
His charm and sharp writing put both of those serials on the map, and his contributions to television beyond the world of ESPN extend further than any other anchor.
9. Linda Cohn
Cohn is Bristol’s rock, an uncommonly reliable voice in the tumultuous waters of ESPN. Episodes of SportsCenter with Cohn always feel comfortingly familiar, perhaps because of Cohn’s long tenure and her understated, yet recognizable delivery.
Cohn doesn’t self-promote as much as other anchors, but her longevity establishes her as one of the best.
Video Note: Cohn is really only a bit player in this clip, but I love the interview with a pre-roid Barry Bonds and the talk about the Red Sox trying to sign Mark McGwire. Good times.
8. Kenny Mayne
I’ve often thought Mayne was the prototype for SportsCenter anchors with comic aspirations. He’s dry, self-effacing and just a little bit mean when he needs to be.
Mayne’s Q rating is so high he’s even done some mainstream commercial work for the likes of J.C. Penney and Mountain Dew. And although his web series Mayne Street never quite took off, he at least demonstrated the sort of versatility most anchors cannot achieve.
7. Stuart Scott
Scott gets sold short as the anchor who brought “urban” lingo to SportsCenter. More than just a hip-hop token, Scott’s smooth delivery and trademark sayings helped him become one of the most recognizable figures on the network.
If you took a straw poll, Scott may well be the biggest celebrity the show has ever produced. I would guess that more casual sports fans know Scott by name and appearance than any other acting ESPN employee.
Video Note: I actually remember this SC highlight, as that year was one of the all-time high points in the Duke vs. North Carolina rivalry.
6. Scott Van Pelt
Of the younger crop, Van Pelt rises above the rest. He can play foil or instigator in any joke, while maintaining credibility on harder news stories. It’s a perilous line that anchors walk and Van Pelt walks it well.
He is also a master improviser, as evidenced by his work for ESPN Radio (the ultimate improv medium) and this moment on SportsCenter in 2010, when a Howard Stern-employed prankster called into the show, masquerading as Brian Westbrook.
Not only did Van Pelt recognize the caller’s intent pretty quickly (without stumbling onto the next question), he even managed to squeeze in the wonderfully aware and somewhat self-deprecating “Hi, YouTube” line. High marks for creativity, Van Pelt. High marks, indeed.
5. Robin Roberts
Anyone who watched SportsCenter in the 1990s could see Roberts’ potential. Never as entertaining as some of her more carnival-esque colleagues, she was nonetheless the most immediately likable anchor on the network.
It’s always been easy to root for Roberts, through her career changes and her personal battle with cancer. Roberts' good nature always felt genuine, and viewers clearly connected with her warm, composed manner of speech.
From those early days, it's easy to see the star power that eventually led her to Good Morning America.
4. Dan Patrick
Patrick was one half of the duo that put SportsCenter on the media map. Along with Keith Olbermann, Patrick’s witty and somewhat understated humor helped establish ESPN as a cool cable outsider with big-time sports credentials.
Olbermann sardonically called their 11:00 p.m. SportsCenter the “big show,” and his moniker wasn’t far off. Patrick and Olbermann became sports television’s late-night answer to David Letterman and Jay Leno, and the franchise has proudly worn that identity ever since.
Although Olbermann somewhat overshadowed his partner in those days, Patrick’s talents have come to the forefront in later years. He’s clever (his radio show is a must-listen), commanding (great work on Sunday Night Football), versatile (his weekly interview column in SI is the mag’s best regular piece) and exceedingly gracious.
For a long time Patrick was recognized solely as a seminal ESPN personality, but these days, he is a force to himself across every journalistic medium.
3. Chris Berman
For many, Berman is the quintessential SportsCenter anchor—loud, colorful and oozing with charisma. Although his paragraph-long nicknames* and guttural catchphrases may seem a bit trite these days, in his time, Berman revolutionized ESPN and the greater world of sportscasting.
In its 30 years, ESPN has had no bigger star than Berman, and his recent induction into the NFL Hall of Fame underscores Boomer’s influence. As a fan it's easy to appreciate Berman’s infectious enthusiasm for the game he covers, and his rigid loyalty to the network that made his career.
*My favorite Berman nickname was Jeff “See Through” Blauser, referring to the Atlanta Braves shortstop. Brilliant!
2. Bob Ley
In the recent tell-all Those Guys Have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN (a great read, by the way), co-authors James Miller and Tom Shales describe Ley as the “network’s best journalist.” I could not think of an apter title or higher praise.
For years, Ley has been the standard bearer for ESPN’s investigative pursuits as host of Outside the Lines and a steadying presence on the 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter.
I was surprised to read in the book that Ley’s politics lean rightward—surprised not because he ever suggested the opposite, but because I can’t imagine him holding any political bias. He always felt intrinsically neutral, as a good reporter should.
His more recent turn as the network’s lead soccer host has put Ley back into the spotlight and brought his brilliant career into focus.
1. Keith Olbermann
Before arguing the selection, try to separate Olbermann the anchor from Olbermann the pundit, from Olbermann the employee, from Olbermann the person.
Yes, with Olbermann we must distill so much distraction to find the anchor within, but once there, it’s clear that no one owned the anchor desk quite like KO.
Maybe he was conceited and dickish off-set, but once cameras rolled, he was a television personality savant. And every single male anchor since Olbermann has attempted to capture some part of his subtle, high-IQ, sports-nerd vibe.
Most telling of all is the respect—often begrudging—that Olbermann earned among his peers. A sampling of praise from Those Guys Have all the Fun:
“When I first got to ESPN...I was trying to be either Dan or Keith, and that was the trap that a lot of new anchors fell into. The height of SportsCenter was with those two...I don’t think that’ll be different seventy-five years from now.”—Steve Levy
“Don’t try to be Keith; he’s a genius. He’s the artist you can’t copy.”—Rece Davis
“I’ve never seen anybody do SportsCenter as well as Olbermann. Nobody. It hasn’t even been close.”—Karl Ravech
“Among us broadcasting people, we thought he was a genius...”—Linda Cohn
At the highest level, alongside the very best in his field, Olbermann stood alone. As it is with Gretzky and hockey, or Jordan and basketball, so it is with Keith Olbermann and Bristol.
Video Note: Enjoy Keith and Dan with another master of his craft, David Letterman.