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Volume 21 No. 47
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ESPN: Van Pelt ‘SportsCenter’ on course despite flat ratings

“SportsCenter” is ESPN’s most important on-screen brand. But when ESPN launched a midnight version of the long-running show on Sept. 7, the network did not want it to look anything like a traditional “SportsCenter.”

The midnight show has one host instead of two, with the likable Scott Van Pelt. It has a big, spacious set that looks nothing like a traditional studio show.

The show feels more like the popular radio show Van Pelt left to take over hosting duties, complete with in-studio guests and lots of the host’s opinions.

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This is how ESPN executives reimagine “SportsCenter,” at one-time the definitive sports highlight show. Of course, highlights can be seen anywhere nowadays, so ESPN is trying to bring more personality to the franchise, from midnight with Van Pelt to its 1 a.m. ET version with Neil Everett and Stan Verrett.

“This is still ‘SportsCenter,’ which means highlights are something fans expect; we can’t just run away from that,” said Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and News. “When you look at that landscape and you’re really asking for somebody’s time, there’s a personal commitment. The ‘SportsCenter’ brand can be enhanced when you have the right person attached.”

Among the new twists for the midnight “SportsCenter”: a spacious set.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES
ESPN has put a lot of promotional muscle behind Van Pelt’s show, and nearly three months into its run, viewership has not been spectacular. Ratings and viewers are generally flat with the “SportsCenter” that was on-air a year ago.

Van Pelt averaged a 0.5 rating/659,000 viewers for 33 Tuesday-Friday shows from its Sept. 7 launch to Nov. 19. A year ago, 26 episodes of the midnight “SportsCenter” averaged a 0.5 rating/712,000 viewers.

On Mondays, which have a bigger lead-in thanks to the highly rated “Monday Night Football,” last year’s midnight show averaged a 2.4 rating/3.505 million viewers, compared to this year’s 2.4 rating/3.398 million viewers.

It’s still too early for ESPN to worry about the show’s ratings. ESPN is committed to it for the long haul. Still, ESPN executives are heartened by the show’s digital performance. King said streaming numbers through WatchESPN would add a single digital percentage to the show’s overall viewership.

“It’s important for us to look not only at TV ratings,” King said. “Yes, the ratings are flat. As we start looking at a broader definition of ratings, we will see a lift.”

King is convinced that the show is on the right course. Three weeks after launch, ESPN held a series of focus groups, and executives were pleased with two themes that kept emerging, King said.

Group participants liked how different the show looked from regular “SportsCenter” sets, and they viewed Van Pelt as the right person to host it.

“They encouraged us to go further,” King said. “They didn’t know what that meant. Neither did we. We’re still figuring it out. Yes, it’s different. And, yes, you have permission to go further.”

Like much of Van Pelt’s late-night competition — think Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel — the midnight “SportsCenter” is broken into segments that can easily be shared on social media.

Five weeks after the show’s launch, for example, Van Pelt had a segment where he spoke about former NBA player Lamar Odom, who was in the hospital. The segment went viral, picking up 8,000 retweets and 7,000 likes when ESPN’s “SportsCenter” account tweeted it out at 1:23 a.m. ET. That’s 7.2 times higher than the average engagement of tweets from that account, ESPN says.

“These kinds of segments are entertaining regardless of whether or not you are watching them in that live news cycle,” King said. “They are eminently sharable, and we wanted to make sure that we honored that. We’re doing Periscope sessions immediately after the show because we learned in the prior iteration of a midnight show that there was an active audience that wanted to check in and wanted to listen to another five to seven minutes of Scott talking about the show that just happened.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.