"If you're a fan, if you're a fan, what you'll see in the next minutes, hours, and days to follow may convince you, you've gone to sports heaven."
-- Anchor Lee Leonard, on the first "SportsCenter" broadcast
When all-sports cable network ESPN went on the air at 7:00 P.M. Eastern time on September 7, 1979, it went on the air with a sports news and highlights show called "SportsCenter." Since then, "SportsCenter" has remained the network's signature program.
The idea for "SportsCenter" came early to ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen. He realized there would have to be something on the air between the actual live and tape-delayed sporting events being broadcast, and a news show covering sports seemed like an obvious fit. It would be essentially an expanded version of the sports segment on most local news broadcasts, a half hour long instead of 3 or 4 minutes, and it would be called "SportsCentral."
The name became "SportsCenter" by the time it premiered with anchors Lee Leonard and George Grande. In the early days, viewers saw plenty of talking heads, as the anchors struggled to kill time without enough highlights to fill 30 minutes. Fortunately, Grande and other early anchors such as Bob Ley, Tom Mees, and Chris Berman were good at ad libbing for minutes at a time. Eventually, ESPN president Chet Simmons persuaded the major networks, ABC, NBC, and later CBS, to allow ESPN to use video of the sports they broadcast (it helped that, in the early days, the networks didn't view ESPN as a competitor).
"SportsCenter" broadcasts were briefly cut back to 15 minutes each in 1983, but following complaints from viewers and critics, the 30-minute length was soon reinstated, and there was no looking back.
A major change in "SportsCenter" came in early 1988 when John Walsh was hired as executive editor of ESPN, concentrating on "SportsCenter." Walsh increased the professionalism of the operation, as well as making the show much more journalism-oriented, turning it into the TV version of a newspaper's sports section. Before Walsh came along, the first segment on "SportsCenter" was the big game; after he arrived, the first segment would be the big news story (sometimes the big game, more often not). The running time of most "SportsCenter" broadcasts was increased to an hour. Among Walsh's early hires for on-air talent were Charley Steiner, Andrea Kremer, Robin Roberts, and Mike Tirico.
In 1989, Walsh hired an anchor named Dan Patrick away from CNN, and two years later, hired a local Los Angeles sports anchor named Keith Olbermann away from KCBS. On April 5, 1992, Patrick and Olbermann anchored the 11:00 P.M. Eastern edition of "SportsCenter" together for the first time.
The two worked well together, to put it mildly, with a great rapport and a strong undercurrent of spontaneous humor. Yet Patrick and Olbermann's "The Big Show," as they nicknamed the 11:00 "SportsCenter" (in a dig at CNN's 11:00 sports highlights show, only a half-hour long), still contained the solid journalistic content of the other editions of "SportsCenter."
Viewers quickly became hooked on "The Big Show," attracted by the humor and the large number of catch phrases that sprang up. A baseball player on a hot streak was "en fuego." A hockey player didn't score a goal, instead, "he put the biscuit in the basket." A big play that somehow didn't make it into the highlight video was "not appearing in your picture." And so on.
When ESPN2 launched in October 1993, the Olbermann/Patrick team was broken up as Olbermann went over to the Deuce to co-anchor its signature show, "SportsNight," with Suzy Kolber. "SportsNight" turned out to be a misguided, schizophrenic mess, and Olbermann was back on "SportsCenter" with Dan Patrick by the spring of 1994.
With the success of Olbermann and Patrick's "Big Show" also increasing ratings for the other daily editions of "SportsCenter," ESPN opted to begin a new promotional campaign for the show. It hired ad agency Weiden & Kennedy, which had previously come up with the slogans "Just Do It" for Nike and "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" for Microsoft. For "SportsCenter," Weiden & Kennedy created the simple slogan "This Is 'SportsCenter,'" but the main attraction was the series of humorous commercials that went along with the slogan. The commercials were purportedly a behind the scenes look at ESPN, but their version of ESPN was one in which professional athletes were hanging around in the newsroom having bizarre conversations with the anchors, and college football team mascots were employed in various technical capacities. The "This Is 'SportsCenter'" commercials were a hit with viewers, not only further increased the ratings for "SportsCenter" but also the ratings for all ESPN programming, and the series continued for years.
Olbermann left ESPN for good in 1997, following various disputes with John Walsh and others in ESPN management, but the Nielsen ratings for all editions of "SportsCenter" stayed strong after his departure. "SportsCenter" received its first serious competition from another national sports network several years later when Fox Sports Net began the "National Sports Report," then hired Keith Olbermann as an anchor. Soon, Olbermann cut back his workload, switching to a weekly Sunday night show called "The Keith Olbermann Evening News." In 2001, Olbermann left FSN, which canceled his show and then deemphasized "National Sports Report" in favor of local news and highlights shows on the various regional Fox Sports Net networks. Once again, "SportsCenter" stood alone.
Such was the impact of "SportsCenter" that it inspired a sitcom. Created by Aaron Sorkin, "Sports Night" aired on ABC from 1998 to 2000 and took place behind the scenes at a fictional cable sports network that produced a daily sports news and highlights show called "Sports Night." Any resemblance to the actual "SportsCenter" was purely coincidental, of course.
Episode number 25,000 of "SportsCenter" aired on August 25, 2002. With several new editions airing every day, anchored by a myriad of ESPN personalities such as Stuart Scott, Rich Eisen, and Kenny Mayne in addition to many of those already named, the number keeps going up at a furious pace, and it may keep going on forever.
- Freeman, Michael. ESPN: The Uncensored History. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2001.
- Olbermann, Keith, and Dan Patrick. The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN's 'SportsCenter.' New York: Pocket Books, 1998.
- tes's excellent node on ESPN.
- Viewings of "SportsCenter" on such fine cable systems as Jones Intercable in Tampa, Florida (now Time Warner), TCI in South Park Township, Pennsylvania (now AT&T Broadband), and Adelphia in the San Fernando Valley.