The End of SportsCenter: ESPN’s Flagship Show Hits Bottom


“SportsCenter” has been in decline for years, but now it is in absolute freefall.

When ESPN added live weekday editions of SportsCenter in 2008, the move was long overdue. Up until that point, ESPN televised the 1 AM “SportsCenter” on repeat all morning long. Important stories that broke early in the day — such as the 2007 death of Sean Taylor — were not covered adequately. In addition, having the same highlights and same commentary hour after hour made ESPN a stale location on weekday mornings.

The live SportsCenter allowed ESPN to have fresh content and the ability to react better to breaking news. It has also, however, resulted in six hours of airtime that need to be filled — and hardly ever, at this point, by highlights.

Over the years, the morning SportsCenter has become a plague of bombastic analysis, artificial debate, and whatever is racking up hits online. Highlights take a backseat, unless they are used in the service of more debate.

The worst aspects of the morning “SportsCenter” were evident on Monday. The morning shows led with a viral video (a high school basketball buzzer beater) and then conducted separate lengthy interviews with the player and coach involved. The fans would get to decide whether the buzzer beater or a Jadeveon Clowney hit from earlier in the year was the ‘best of the best’ play, a distinction that means nothing. During the interview, Ravens RB Ray Rice called in to congratulate the players; anchor Jay Crawford asked him which play should win an ESPY Award — the high school buzzer beater, or Rice’s own 4th-and-29 run during the NFL regular season.

As the topping on the ESPN sundae, star pundit Stephen A. Smith was allowed to opine about the Blackhawks’ NHL points streak, a subject about which he was strikingly ignorant. During the Noon ET show, he debated Barry Melrose on the issue, because of course he did. Indeed, this is SportsCenter — endless debate, fan interaction, and once in awhile, some highlights.

Briefly, here is a look at the factors that have made the morning SportsCenter some of the worst television ESPN has to offer.

Stephen A. Smith

The rise of Stephen A. Smith at ESPN would be sad if it were not so predictable. ESPN made the right decision when it failed to renew Smith’s contract in 2008. His hiring was one of the worst legacies of the Mark Shapiro era — loud, obnoxious, and starving for attention, Smith was the perfect pundit for ESPN’s mid-2000s programming.

As ESPN cleaned itself up from the Shapiro era in the late 2000s, Smith was suddenly out of place. His role shrank until he was no longer necessary. Afterward, he left for his true calling — the cesspool that is cable news.

For whatever reason, ESPN let Smith back in the door in 2011. While his initial role was confined to the radio and, he quickly resumed his position as one of ESPN’s most prominent talkers. Now, he is an institution on the morning SportsCenter, where unnecessarily deferential anchors sit by and watch him devolve into the kind of self-parody that even “Saturday Night Live” cannot adequately capture.

On Monday, Smith ranted and raved about the latest debate du jour — whether the Blackhawks points streak or the Heat win streak was more impressive. Smith’s argument in placing the Heat above the Blackhawks was that the NHL allows games to end in ties. Of course, the NHL eliminated ties after the 2004-05 lockout, but actual knowledge about sports is less essential for the morning SportsCenter than having an uneducated and polarizing take.

Endless Debate

With the “success” of ESPN’s First Take — success in quotes, as the show typically earns less than 500,000 viewers a day — ESPN has decided that compulsory debate is the wave of the future. It would be one thing if the debate format was confined to the little-watched ESPN2, but now the morning “SportsCenter” has begun to rely more on arguments than on highlights.

Day-long debates (Should fans storm the court? Should LeBron dunk in pregame?) now involve as many analysts as ESPN can fit around a desk. Herm Edwards — who has transformed almost into a cartoon character during his time with ESPN — vehemently advocates for Tiger Woods as the biggest star in sports, but Tim Kurkjian thinks its LeBron James. Everyone must have an opinion, even if that opinion is hardly informed (see: Stephen A.).

The fans get involved as well. Like a presidential debate on cable news, fans’ realtime preferences get displayed on-screen. Is Seth Greenberg persuasive enough to get fans to vote for some high-school basketball half-court shot as the best play of 2013? Just check the bottom of the screen.

Viral Video Fixation

The fact that the 11 AM and 12 PM ET SportsCenter led with a high school basketball buzzer beater for nearly 15 minutes is no longer a surprise. As The Big Lead recently reported, ESPN has mandated that SportsCenter increase its focus on viral videos. As a result, every single half-court shot taken by a tenth grader is national news. It is tough, of course, to get riled up about ESPN giving some kids a moment in the sun — and when those half-court shots are confined to the ‘Top 10′ list, it really is not that big of a deal.

However, the nature of the morning “SportsCenter” is not to let a nice moment breathe, but to pound it into the dirt until it loses any of its authenticity. So when a high school player hurls a halfcourt shot, that moment of joy gets put through the ESPN meatgrinder and comes out fodder for debate.

It is not enough for ESPN to be obsessed with viral videos of sporting events. The network has taken to viral videos of any kind, last week debasing the program with extensive coverage of the Miami Heat ‘Harlem Shake’ video. Not only did “SportsCenter” show the video repeatedly, but then Edwards taught Chris McKendry and Jay Crawford the proper technique. The show ended with dozens of ESPN staffers doing the dance. The only hilarious aspect of the ordeal was the fact that Bob Ley‘s “Outside the Lines” came on immediately after.

The morning “SportsCenter” will undergo changes later this year, according to a report by The Big Lead. It remains to be seen whether those changes can save the show from itself. While other editions of SportsCenter have flaws — the 6 PM ET edition has taken to asking fans trivia questions on Twitter — only the morning edition sails headfirst into pure schlock.

SportsCenter is not a completely lost cause. The 1 AM shows from Los Angeles, which are weighted heavily to highlights, still resemble what the show used to be. Not in its heyday, of course, but at least back when it was still watchable. The 11 PM shows, which are typically hosted by the show’s best anchors — Scott Van Pelt and John Buccigross — are usually good as well. Before 11 PM, however, SportsCenter has devolved into some of the most vapid programming on television.

  • Omari Stridiron

    sportscenter is not only in decline it’s becoming irrelevant. Not just because there are moony options for fans to watch highlights but also because it’s not showing many highlights (that’s what made the show great) and the fact that it kowtows to (biased towards) any athlete that can make news based on soap operas that make no sense and personality without much achievement. ESPN should know better than to kowtow to gossip crap and loudmouths. There are many positive stories being overlooked by sports center and ESPN these days.

  • Spanwick Chasm

    the best part of sportscenter is having anchors trying to read tweets from professional athletes. “i praise you 24/7!! and this how you do me?”

  • Nathan Douglas Johnson III

    Loved this Article! My opinion on this is that Sportscenter from 9AM-3PM (eastern) was a good idea to show live breaking news story, interviews and news conferences. However, I serious think they get bored when there is no big stories in the sports so they decide to turn it into a debate show. ESPN should leave the debating to Mike and Mike, 1st Take, PTI, Around the Horn, etc. and let Sportscenter be more of the Sportscenter that is shown at 11 PM and 1 AM eastern!

  • Garik T

    Steven A Smith and Skip Bayless have to be the worst commentators ever. No one cares about their opinion. Like the article stated. How do they debate mindless stuff for hours on end. Just points to the worthlessness of social media!

  • pete pochkowski

    I cannot stand espn, I do not watch espn nor do I nor will I ever care for espn….they should rename themselves the Star Network, all they do is show big stars, showcase big stars, focus on big stars and the heck with everything else…they really don’t care about the NHL unless Crosby plays Ovechkin, the Blackhawks success story is something they don'[t want to talk about especially the idiots like Screamin A Smith or Colon Coward….if I want to watch a debate, I will bore myself to tears and tune in to FOX News, enough said.

    • Charles Place

      ESPN suffers from “Highlander Syndrome.” They focus almost exclusively to the most popular sport and the most popular team and most popular player. They are obsessed with covering whomever appeals to the most eyeballs at the moment and “there can be only one.”

  • Stephen Adams

    This is why we have sports talk radio. What idiots. In a related point, I heard that Olbermann wants back at ESPN…how fitting.

  • RedheadedStepchild

    It should really be about the sports, but that went out the window years ago. ESPN has become more about the anchors’ catch phrases and trying to make themselves part of the story. It has become style over substance and always salivating over the hot teams, the hot players and the big franchises. When the Red Sox won the World Series they ran the entire post parade. When other teams have won, they’ve only shown the highlights. There is definitely a double standard when it comes to the bigger franchises (ie Yankees, Red Sox, Patriots, Cowboys) versus the smaller successful franchises (White Sox, Twins, Saints,OC Thunder). They will not only ride the bandwagon, most of the time they’ll build it and then shove it down your throat. It is pretty apparent that there is no absolutely no interest in any type of objectivity or actual journalistic integrity in any of their “news” broadcasts.

  • gold6185

    Mike & Mike in the morning is a great show.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “…the little-watched ESPN2…”

    Wow, remember ESPN 2? It had it’s own graphics package and everything. How I’d love to watch NHL2nite (or RPM 2nite depending on the season) followed by gaelic football on a Tuesday night again.

  • Brian McKeever

    SportsCenter has sucked since at LEAST the late-1990s…and with all the great sport Internet sites out there providing coverage, why anyone bothers watching it anymore is beyond me.

  • Tim

    Why does the NFL get so much coverage on SportCenter? Every. Single. Day. And I’m pretty sure ESPN believes there are only four teams in the NBA: the Lakers, the Heat, and whichever two teams are playing against them. What about the global sports that could easily gain popularity if it they were given even the slightest bit of attention? (Yes, I’m talking about soccer..) Instead of covering the same story non-stop for two weeks (Manti Te’o anyone?) how about SportsCenter tries to show highlights from actual sporting events that are going on. If I cared about the personal drama I would read TMZ or watch Entertainment Tonight or something like that. I want sports.

    • Lonestarr022

      The NFL is popular, all i need to say.

  • Morgan Wick

    What would you have ESPN do for the morning and 6PM SportsCenters? Rerun the same highlights from last night over and over, like what they did when it was a “stale location on weekday mornings”?

  • Jimmy Weinland

    The date the mother-ship officially started going down? July 8, 2010

    • Teed

      Amen sister.

  • Brad Hiner

    What a joke. Steven A. Smith is supposed to be a professional sports commentator. You would think he would understand the sport he is commentating. Babbling on about why the Blackhawks point streak doesn’t compare to the Heat was embarrassing to watch. He obviously hasn’t watched hockey in years and doesn’t understand overtime and shoot out point rules at all. I get that ESPN dropped the NHL contract years ago, and wants to promote their new contracts (soccer). Fine. Business is business. But could SportsCenter at least change their name to something more accurate, like “Sports We Care About”? Or, “Sports We Get Paid to Talk About”? We would hope that Steven A. Smith would not get air time regardless of the new show title.

  • paul_houle

    Is ESPN going the same way as MTV?

    ESPN is always on at the gym where I work out and the only think I ever see is Sports Center, not any actual sports. It’s all catty gossip, I just can’t imagine men being able to bear it at all.