ESPN tonight will broadcast its 50,000th episode of “SportsCenter,” and 12-year veteran anchor Scott Van Pelt said of the show’s longevity, “All you can do is just try to continue to put the honest effort in to cover the games and events the way that people want you to, and trust that if you do that people will continue to seek you out.” The show has been on the air since Sept. 7, 1979, and Van Pelt said the biggest evolution he has seen in “SportsCenter” is that it is now based more around discussion and analysis as opposed to highlight footage. He said, “The show has become far more ‘big event’ driven, and about the analysis and highlights of the big event than it is a painting with broad strokes.” Having appeared in around 4,000 episodes, Van Pelt took time this week to look back on, and share what it is about “SportsCenter” that stands out to him.
Q: What is your most memorable episode or on-air moment?
Van Pelt: Without question, the show that I remember most vividly was a remarkable, remarkable night -- last year, the last day of the baseball season. The Orioles were playing the Red Sox, the Yankees were playing the Rays, and there was this impossible confluence of “if this, then that.” And it all happened within about a three-minute span where Jonathan Papelbon blew the game, the Red Sox lost -- completing their collapse -- and Evan Longoria hit a walk-off home run for the Tampa Bay Rays which meant that they caught the Red Sox and were in the playoffs. Stuart Scott and I were on the air seconds after all this happened. You’re trying to process it, you realize that this is monumental … and we’re on the air.
He and I had a very honest, real kind of exchange to start the show. I said, “How long have you done this?” He said, “18 years.” And I said, “I’ve been here about a dozen, so that’s 30 years and we could be here 100 years and we would never see something more bizarre than what just happened.” From there we were just kind of off and running. I think that people seemed to -- at least the reactions that I got -- people appreciated what I was saying is what they were thinking. And that’s the best part of the job is if you can allow yourself not to be so buttoned up and professional that you’re just, “Here we are and here’s what happened in Baltimore,” and instead you’re just like, “Are you freaking kidding me?” Because that’s exactly what everybody is thinking out there watching.
Q: What is the biggest or toughest storyline that you have covered for “SportsCenter?”
Van Pelt: There have been just these awful stories, especially lately. … Obviously the Penn State story became just so -- and it wasn’t just sports related -- but it was just so significant. I really hate being the prisoner of the moment, but I can’t think of anything that was as visceral as the Penn State story because of what that university represented in terms of its football program, but then the idea of the kids who were at risk suffering the way that they did. That was massive. The work stoppages and this and that, the games happen every day -- things like that story, thankfully and hopefully, only happen once.
Q: Is there a certain time block that you prefer anchoring?
Van Pelt: I only do the (11:00pm ET) anymore, and it’s just a byproduct of my life. But frankly, it’s the one that I personally absolutely prefer. I’m a results guy. I’m a what happened, why did it happen, let’s show you the moment. For example, Stuart and I are on the set, coming off North Carolina versus Duke, Austin Rivers hits a shot at the buzzer and Duke stuns North Carolina and three seconds later we’re on the air. The immediacy of that moment and the adrenaline of that moment cannot be replicated anywhere else. That landscape, that hour … that’s what I want to be on because as I say, I’m much more for the results and highlights as opposed to all the story lines that surround it.
Q: If you could make any one change to the show, what would it be?
Van Pelt: For me personally, I always want to show as many highlights as we possibly can. I’m just a little more old school in that I personally would prefer to see a more thorough representation of what happened throughout the day in sports as opposed to covering the biggest event of the day wall-to-wall. I understand that in the hour from 11 to midnight, a lot of real estate is spoken for and you can’t be a buffet to the world. … You have to try to kind of serve the masses the most popular things. … I wish that we were able to squeeze more highlights in at the expense of other elements that I personally don’t find as entertaining and enjoyable. But the success of the show over the years has made that real estate very, very coveted.
Q: How can the show stay current and continue to embrace ever-evolving technology and social media?
Van Pelt: That is the biggest issue of the moment -- figuring out a way to stay relevant for fans in the landscape where things have changed so drastically. … How do you keep people coming back to that place? A lot of it -- I do believe -- is the routine, the sense that we’re the home for sports fans. It sounds corny but I think that it’s true. I think people just know, “I’ll put on ‘SportsCenter.’” “If I’ve been out, I’ll put on ‘SportsCenter.’” But you can’t just assume that will always be true, because that’s the kind of arrogance that leads to the fall of Rome.
Q: What are your favorite “This is SportsCenter” promos?
Van Pelt: I have been -- and I’m not bragging -- I think I’ve been in more of them than anyone and let me make this clear, the reason I’ve been in more of them than anyone is because the very first one I did they put me in the trunk of a car and realized that I was willing to be the punch line and I have been many, many times since then. The new one with John Clayton that people are losing their minds over -- when I saw the script, I said this will be one of the greats. If he’s willing to do it and buy into it, it will be hilarious. When I saw it on paper, I looked at the director and said, “Is he gonna do it as it's written?” And he said, “I think so.” And I said, “Well this is an all-timer.” I love, there’s one called “Old Timer's Day,” which features elderly anchors and there is this one guy who reminds me of my grandfather who passed away unfortunately far too long ago, I love that ad.
And of the ones I’ve been in, the Jimmy Rollins one I like. It’s about getting in slumps and looking at the tape and he and I go through the process of trying to figure out if he can help me. I think that’s the favorite one that I’ve been in, but the Clayton one is gonna be tough to top. …The Rollins one pops up every now and again and I kind of chuckle because the whole bit between me and him was kind of unscripted looking at the tape and it came out pretty funny.