SBJ/April 25-May 1, 2016 /Media

ESPN pushes back on negative critiques of ‘SportsCenter’

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Jamie Horowitz’s public critique of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” earlier this month clearly touched a nerve in Bristol.

Speaking at the 2016 CAA World Congress of Sports, the Fox Sports National Networks president cited the declining ratings for ESPN’s signature show, saying, “I’d be a little worried if I were them.”

A former ESPN executive, Horowitz cited stats that showed “SportsCenter” ratings had dropped 27 percent since 2010. Over the last five years, “SportsCenter” ratings in the 18-to-34 demo are down 36 percent. Horowitz, who has launched several opinion-based studio shows to small audiences on Fox Sports 1, believes that news-driven shows like “SportsCenter” do not work well on television anymore since highlights are so readily available online.

ESPN executives have heard these criticisms many times before and are eager to counter them. They know that people watch “SportsCenter” differently. But Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and news, refuses to concede the point that consumers’ move to mobile dooms “SportsCenter” as a television product. He believes that ESPN is making the necessary changes that eventually will turn “SportsCenter” ratings around.

“We could spend a lot of energy reading points of view on ‘SportsCenter’ from folks who don’t work within ‘SportsCenter,’” King said. “They haven’t seen the amount of work that’s being produced by folks designed to get everywhere … I would expect that the work we’ve done over the last couple of years to truly differentiate those hours will take some time for people to recognize and attach themselves and see the kinds of things that we’ve done.”

Those changes have centered on the idea of creating deeper connections with “SportsCenter” viewers, from having anchors show more of their personality to taking the show on the road more frequently.

King is most pleased that each show has its own identity, which he believes keeps it from becoming a formulaic news and highlights show. “SportsCenter: AM” (7-10 a.m. ET) is programmed more for morning commuters, while the 10 a.m. “SportsCenter” with Hannah Storm gets more in-depth on topics.

Meanwhile, “SportsCenter” anchors have been told to allow their personalities to emerge more than they have in the past and become more transparent about the teams they support. King believes this helps create a deeper connection with their viewers.

ESPN has created some editions around the host’s personality, like Scott Van Pelt’s late-night show, which is heavy on college sports, gambling, golf and, of course, University of Maryland references.

“We were moved to do it because it was something that would move Scott and the production team to the point of passion, but also because we knew that it made sense from an audience perspective,” King said.

“SportsCenter” is looking for passion points, which is one of the reasons that it has taken the show on the road under the banner of “SportsCenter on the Road.” It has produced the show from big events, like the NBA Finals, to smaller venues, like a trip to Hampton University in February to document the school’s first lacrosse game.

“It’s not a small deal for us to have staked that claim and then work out a great partnership with somebody like Ford to sponsor ‘SportsCenter on the Road,’” King said. “‘SportsCenter on the Road’ became much more than just a side initiative. It became an ongoing promise of connection out in the sports fans’ world.”

While he’s working to improve “SportsCenter” TV ratings, King believes such a myopic focus misses a bigger point.

“TV ratings matter. We think about them a lot, and I don’t want to be cavalier about it,” King said. “When measurements start taking in real-time viewing across all platforms, the story will appear less dire. We have evidence every day that people are changing how they are consuming. But I also think there is a big question about television specifically and its demand that people do one thing when we want them to do it.”

As an example, King pointed to the 1 a.m. ET “SportsCenter” following the April 13 Lakers-Jazz game when Kobe Bryant scored 60 points. “SportsCenter” logged 116,000 unique viewers who watched a live stream via WatchESPN, in addition to the 1.35 million viewers that watched on the ESPN linear channel. Plus, in the 24 hours after that Lakers game and the Warriors record-setting game that occurred at the same time, ESPN counted 10.9 million video clip starts for those highlights on its nonlinear platforms.

“I know there are networks out there that would take an audience of 116,000 at 1 a.m.,” King said.

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