“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 ESPN.com, 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.
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.