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Volume 22 No. 19
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Reports of ‘SportsCenter’s’ death have been greatly exaggerated

ESPN went back to the basics with “SportsCenter” after earlier adjustments failed to gain traction with viewers.
Photo: espn images

The ratings turnaround for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” franchise has been one of the most surprising stories of the past year.

It wasn’t so long ago that people were writing obituaries for shows like “SportsCenter.” Today, it’s easy enough to laugh at headlines like one from the Huffington Post in January 2017 that read, “How Twitter Killed SportsCenter.” In February 2016, Awful Announcing reported: “The sports highlight show is dead.” A December 2017 headline from The Ringer talked about “The Imminent Death — and Amazing Life — of the Funny Highlight Guy.”

But the concept that “SportsCenter” was not long for this world did not seem so outlandish at the time. Ratings for all sports news and highlights shows, including “SportsCenter,” were tanking.

Game highlights had become ubiquitous — anyone with a smartphone can call up any highlight he wants within seconds. Sports fans did not need to tune to “SportsCenter” anymore for scores and highlights.

“SportsCenter” ratings are nowhere close to where they were during the show’s heyday in the 1990s and 2000s. But they no longer are dropping, and in some cases, are even showing modest growth, which is a cause for celebration in today’s television environment.

Check out these stats:

After returning to ESPN in September 2018, viewers for the 7 a.m. “SportsCenter” are up 2% through June 2019 compared to June 2018 (327,000 vs. 321,000).

The noon “SportsCenter” posted a 10% viewer increase in June compared to a year ago (345,000 vs. 315,000).

Since April 2018, the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” has posted viewership increases in 13 of 15 months.

A big reason for the franchise’s renewed success comes down to Norby Williamson, the ESPN executive who was put in charge of “SportsCenter” in November 2017.

When I asked Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of event and studio production/executive editor, about the changes he made to cause this turnaround, he repeated the story about how basketball coaching legend John Wooden would start his practices each season by telling his teams how they should tie their shoes.

Norby Williamson was put in charge of “SportsCenter” in November 2017.
Photo: espn images

“I like to block and tackle first,” Williamson said. “If you take care of little things, whether they’re bumps, teases, teaching people how to ask the right questions, all of a sudden you have a basis from which you can then build on, and then you can take some bigger swings. Sometimes people start taking bigger swings too fast as opposed to taking care of the little things. There’s no real mystery to it.”

His answer fits Williamson to a T. It’s a perfectly boring response that shows a glimpse of his philosophy to get “SportsCenter” back to its basics, especially after several high-profile swings and misses with the show in recent years.

Some ESPN executives privately would argue that the “SportsCenter” slide was caused by forgetting those basics. ESPN shelved its 7 a.m. edition in favor of the personality-focused morning show “Get Up!,” and switched the format of its 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” so that it more closely was aligned to hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

There were some anomalies. The midnight “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt is considered a success even though it’s closely associated with its host. But Williamson said viewers identify the show more with “SportsCenter” than Van Pelt.

“Customers say ‘SportsCenter’ is news, information, postgame shows at night off big events, and highlights — all four of those things are encompassed in Van Pelt’s,” he said. “If you ask the consumer, it’s ‘SportsCenter,’ but it’s Van Pelt’s ‘SportsCenter.’”

There’s obviously much more to the recent success of “SportsCenter” than the minutiae of TV broadcasting that Williamson mentioned. He’s in close contact with ESPN’s research department to find out more about the audience that is watching.

“You can be the greatest air conditioner producer in the history of mankind, but if your only store is in Anchorage, Alaska, you’re not going to sell many air conditioners,” he said. “You have to know who’s available to produce to. You have to know what they want. Then you fit talent, production to it.

“Where sometimes people get sideways — whether it’s ESPN or others — is they get a little too self-important and they forget what we get in the business for. We’re in the business to give you what you want, not to produce what I like. I’m a Mets fan, but we’re not doing a ton of Mets coverage now because in the greater scope of a national network, nobody’s banging down the walls to hear too much about the Mets.”

Williamson said people are choosing “SportsCenter” over highlights on smartphones for a specific reason.

“Linear TV can do things that digital can’t: duration, high-level anchors, entertaining,” Williamson said. “We made an effort to go in that direction. That’s paid off.”

Williamson said he has about another year left before he will have to retool “SportsCenter” again.

“Then we’re going to get into our three-year comparisons to when I came in and made some changes,” he said. “We have to figure out what’s the next big tweak of ‘SportsCenter’ and where we may be going. I have some ideas.”

What are those ideas, Norby?

“Why would I tell you that?” he said with a laugh.

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