Inside ESPN's plan to reinvent SportsCenter

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

ESPN on Monday announced major changes to the programming lineup and talent roster of its flagship brand, SportsCenter. The changes represent ESPN recognizing an urgent need to reach sports fans on other platforms than just cable television.

In a rare sit-down interview at his office in Bristol, Conn., ESPN Senior Vice President Rob King, who oversees SportsCenter, discussed the changes in depth with Yahoo Finance.

There are two themes to the changes: making SportsCenter more digital, and shifting anchor assignments to make every SportsCenter slot even more tied to the personality of the host.

First, ESPN is launching SportsCenter Right Now: short-burst SportsCenter updates that will run throughout the day on TV and online.

The updates, up to 2 minutes in length, will be shot and produced quickly to cover news of the day, and immediately uploaded to ESPN’s home page, its mobile app, and to social media. They will run on TV in regular bursts between 7 am and 3 pm ET, and on digital platforms between 7 am and 6 pm ET. The updates will also air twice an hour during all ESPN daytime TV shows, as well as during halftime of primetime games on ESPN and on ABC. It all starts in August.

Think of SportsCenter Right Now like the short SportsCenter news updates that break into ESPN Radio programs twice an hour, except these will be videos. What’s new for ESPN is an evolution from simply selecting video clips from SportsCenter TV broadcasts and putting them online, to shooting and producing SportsCenter segments specifically for the web.

This is very clearly an experiment, and ESPN will adapt its strategy to what works and doesn’t. Some of the Right Now segments will report breaking news, some may be lighter and discuss a single story that is going viral.

ESPN is attempting to adapt to major headwinds. It has lost more than 10 million subscribers in four years. For the past three quarters, profit from Disney’s media networks division has fallen, and Disney has explicitly pointed to ESPN as the reason. ESPN needs to fix that, and it is starting with SportsCenter, the brand synonymous with ESPN.

“I’m not sure it’s really fixable,” says BTIG cable analyst Rich Greenfield. “People don’t watch sports news on TV when highlights are on your phone 24/7, and when the NFL has highlights on Twitter and Snapchat. People don’t need SportsCenter like they used to.”

SportsCenter Right Now is an effort to prove otherwise. The updates will have distinct hosts (that is, separate from the hosts of full-length SportsCenter on TV), including Toni Collins and others still to be named. SportsCenter Right Now updates that air during halftime of games will be hosted by better-known SportsCenter anchors like Scott Van Pelt and Neil Everett.

And speaking of hosts, the second part of the news: ESPN has announced significant changes to its SportsCenter anchor roster.

Some of the shifts may surprise devoted viewers: Sage Steele, formerly the host of NBA Countdown, has signed a new, multiyear deal to anchor the 7 am SportsCenter, which will now air seven days a week (with Kevin Negandhi, Jay Harris, Randy Scott, Elle Duncan, and Matt Barrie joining); Steve Levy, John Anderson, and John Buccigross have all signed new deals to co-host the 11 pm SportsCenter, along with Kenny Mayne, who will regularly anchor from Bristol, Conn., headquarters for the first time in nearly a decade (he formerly hosted from LA); Hannah Storm, currently host of the 10 am SportsCenter, has a “prominent” new role that includes “high impact journalistic pieces” for SportsCenter and E:60; Neil Everett and Stan Verrett will continue to anchor the 1 am SportsCenter.

Jemele Hill (L) and Michael Smith on Feb 1, 2017. (via ESPN)

It’s all about emphasizing “personality-driven” programming, a phrase ESPN has adopted recently both in public communications and internally. The network is going bigger on personalities, demonstrated by its marketing push of SportsCenter at midnight with Scott Van Pelt and SportsCenter at 6 pm with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. ESPN executives cite these three as prime examples of modern ESPN personalities.

But what does that mean, exactly?

“Personality-driven”

From a plush couch inside his memorabilia-filled office in Bristol, Rob King expounded on the term ESPN has embraced for its SportsCenter evolution.

“It’s a bit of a mystery to me where we all landed with that phrase,” he says. “Because if Keith [Olbermann] and Dan [Patrick] weren’t personality-driven SportsCenter, then I don’t know what that was. I think ‘personality-driven’ has become something of a euphemism for conversation-slash-debate as opposed to reporting news, and I don’t think there’s an either/or there.”

King is not wrong: SportsCenter has always been anchored by big personalities, so you could say the current push isn’t new, but rather a return to SportsCenter’s roots. King’s favorite example is the late Stuart Scott, “and the way in which he spoke to people. That wasn’t within the lines of what a SportsCenter anchor did. There was a special relationship built over time with the audience. We are comfortable with the anchors telling people where they’re from, and what team they root for.”

Rob King (L) and Scott Van Pelt at ESPN Upfronts in May 2014. (via ESPN)

Still, for some sports fans, “personality-driven” sounds like a dirty phrase. As King correctly notes, it evokes opinions, perhaps at the expense of news and information. In the roiling realm of sports media, where a pithy, aggregated post about an athlete’s controversial comment is a commodity every website offers, many fans have noticed the rise of so-called “hot take” sports journalism. And many of them blame ESPN’s program “First Take,” in which two men shout at each other on topic after topic, for creating the category. The show debuted in 2007 and featured Skip Bayless until he left for Fox Sports 1 last year; it currently features Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman.

Smith, in particular, is a lightning rod. He has offended viewers, at times, with comments on topics like athlete wives and domestic violence. But he also has a devoted following of viewers who love his opinions. Rob King, asked about Smith’s detractors, says, “He is exceptional at reporting on the NBA, and he is incredibly engaging when he talks about those places where he has done serious reporting before he goes on television. That’s the Stephen A. Smith that goes on SportsCenter. Yes, we’ll let him ratchet it up to 10, but if you listen to what he says, it’s actually pretty profound.”

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Another example of sports media’s attraction to controversy and hot takes is the now-daily coverage of LaVar Ball, the father of UCLA basketball star Lonzo Ball. LaVar Ball has said he could personally beat Michael Jordan 1-on-1, has said his son is the best player in the world, and blamed “slow white guys” for UCLA’s tournament loss, among other outlandish claims. The sports press loves it, and so does ESPN, though it may protest otherwise.

In February, ESPN added a home-screen video player to its free mobile app. The first video that autoplays when you open the app is something broad that plays for all users (when I opened it up on a Saturday night, it was a video of a squirrel running onto the baseball field during a game), but the second video is personalized based on the teams you follow.

King, who has been testing the video player, shares this anecdote: at 4:15 on a Thursday he pulled out his phone, opened the app, and the lead video he saw, “was maybe the subject I personally care about the least, which is LaVar Ball. I’m like, ‘Uhhh. LaVar Ball.’ But we have a producer panel that allows us to see what the 32 million followers of the SportsCenter Twitter handle are talking about, and the No. 1 topic among our followers was this maniac LaVar Ball. And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’”

In other words: even the head of SportsCenter doesn’t want to see what crazy thing Ball has said today, but sports fans do; they prove it every time they click LaVar Ball stories and tweet about them. The opportunity with SportsCenter Right Now, King says, “is to do both. To say, ‘This just happened,’ and also to say, ‘You’re interested in this other thing, and we have 30 seconds of video to engage you in this thing you’re interested in.’ So the same editorial processes apply in terms of reporting, but we layer on social listening.”

And King shouldn’t be surprised to see LaVar Ball in the ESPN app—ESPN keeps inviting him back onto its airwaves. In March, Ball went on First Take, and the result was exactly what you’d expect: Ball got into a screaming match with Smith.

Smith is not a SportsCenter anchor. But he is a prime example of the type of personality ESPN favors these days. That may not have been obvious until last month, when ESPN laid off more than 100 people, most of them “on-air talent.” The list included many veterans that viewers recognized and were surprised to see go. But Stephen A. Smith isn’t going anywhere. The same goes for Scott Van Pelt, who took over the midnight SportsCenter in 2015 and has been credited with stabilizing the time slot.

Another, less controversial example of the kind of on-air personality ESPN wants is Bob Ley. Alongside the overhaul of SportsCenter, ESPN this month relaunched its investigative shows, “Outside the Lines” and “E:60,” with a new studio and flashy new show openings. (See below.) King says the drive around personality applies to these relaunches as well: “It’s an amazing treasure to have a Bob [Ley], or a Jeremy [Schaap], as an embodiment of our commitment to storytelling, just as Scott [Van Pelt] is an embodiment of SportsCenter.”

Outside the Lines New Show Open from ESPNFrontRow on Vimeo.

Of course, the risk of doubling down on personalities is that a television network can get held hostage to them. Any viewers who don’t like a certain personality may be unable to look past that.

Along with Van Pelt, King names Chris Berman and Kenny Mayne as examples of anchors who are synonymous with the SportsCenter brand, which is so widely known that on some social platforms has more followers than the main ESPN account. He would like for Jemele Hill and Michael Smith to join those ranks.

Smith and Hill took over the 6 pm SportsCenter on Feb. 6; its ratings so far this year are down 9% from the same period last year. But the powers-that-be at ESPN are focusing on the diversity of the audience Smith and Hill are bringing in, rather than the size of that audience.

SportsCenter evening time slot ratings; data via ESPN

SC6 with Michael and Jemele

Smith and Hill previously co-hosted a popular talk show, “His & Hers,” on which they debated issues and often played up the guy vs. girl dynamic. The program was a showcase for their own interests and the topics they cared about, and those topics weren’t always strictly sports-related.

That worked well on a talk show. But in the setting of SportsCenter, it has met with mixed reaction. Hill and Smith, in particular, bear the brunt of negative comments online about ESPN these days, especially from fans who insist that ESPN “went liberal” and that its implied politics are to blame for its declining subscriptions. (Purely from a business sense, the complaint is silly because people can’t typically call up the cable company and cut only ESPN; when they cut the cord they are canceling their entire cable subscription or at the very least a slew of premium networks including ESPN and many others.)

Yes, one can find mean tweets about any television host, but the noise around Smith and Hill is especially loud. To give just two examples, one Twitter user said, “Smith-Hill is SportsCenter for 5th graders, insulting to the intelligence of sports fans,” while a Yahoo commenter wrote that SC6 “is an immediate channel-changer for me. They don’t cover sports, they cover everything except sports.”

Whether that latter comment is unfair depends on how rigidly you define “sports.” In an SC6 production meeting on a recent Thursday morning, 14 producers (without Hill and Smith) sat around a table discussing possible topics for that day’s show. All of the topics were sports-related, but most were events that took place off the field or court: Cam Newton celebrating his birthday; a video Richard Jefferson posted on Snapchat; Russell Wilson’s public letter to his mom; the latest comments made by LaVar Ball. These are sports-adjacent topics.

While some traditional viewers may be turned off by that, those who do tune in are more engaged: viewing time at 6 pm is up 13% from before Smith and Hill took over. The SC6 audience is 41% black, and its reach among black viewers ages 18 to 34 has increased 15% under Smith and Hill.

“What Michael and Jemele have achieved in the first three months in terms of changing demographics, younger folks, more diverse, is very positive,” King says. And what about that 9% ratings dip? “It requires a lot of work to get people at 6 pm in the evening,” he says. “But it’s a show that has value well beyond its time period.”

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King has a memory that speaks volumes about what ESPN likes about Smith and Hill. He recalls a Monday Night Football game (it was on Oct. 21, 2013) between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings that was ugly, but engaging. King checked his Twitter data panel and found that ESPN was trending very well; more than 1 million people concurrently were talking about the game and ESPN on social. But three times as many were talking about a VH1 documentary airing at the same time: “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story.”

King says he thought to himself, “Holy crap, we’re the only NFL game on, and 3x people are talking about TLC. And then it occurred to me, ‘You know what, you could watch SportsCenter for the next three days, and we’re not going to mention TLC.’” Indeed, according to the data, there was “almost no overlap,” King says, between the people tweeting about the NFL and those tweeting about TLC. Noticing things like the VH1 special, King says, doesn’t necessarily lead SportsCenter producers to tell anchors to mention them, but he adds, “One of the things that’s interesting about Michael and Jemele is: they don’t miss topics like that.”

Exactly right. Had Smith and Hill been hosting SportsCenter back then, they almost certainly would have mentioned the VH1 special; they like pop culture. But as King says, there was almost no overlap in the audiences. So it’s worth asking: do the people watching SportsCenter want SportsCenter anchors to talk about TLC?

Personalization, shorter videos, more videos: Why did it take until now?

Although the SportsCenter Right Now segments will be available on social media and on ESPN.com, ESPN is clearly hopeful that most people will find them via the ESPN app, with its redesigned video player.

In addition to the Right Now segments, ESPN has forced itself to rethink the right length for video clips online, realizing—a bit late—that current viewing habits mean you can’t take a 15-minute clip that aired on TV and put it online. In the past, a SportsCenter highlight video online might have been more than two minutes long. Now, King says, “We know that at about second 79 you’re getting twitchy. So we’ve pulled it back a bit.” King, who ran ESPN.com before taking over SportsCenter in 2014, adds, “Four years ago, it became clear that mobile was becoming the dominant digital consumption doorway for us.”

Four years ago. So why did it take until now to prioritize digital video? No one involved has a very good answer for that.

There’s the obvious: ESPN is a massive organization, with 8,000 employees, and many moving parts; and it had been doing things a certain way for decades; and change is hard. And, in a business sense, ESPN has limitations on its digital rights to how many MLB or NFL video clips it can put on its digital properties per day. King also says that sometimes a press announcement “boldly states something that you’ve already been doing that people haven’t noticed.”

Glenn Jacobs, a senior coordinating producer who recently took over the social video group, describes all the new changes as more evolution than rebirth. “It’s evolution, it’s trying new things,” he says. “I don’t think we’re doing this in a way that we’re throwing out everything else we’ve been doing.”

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King points to a change in the primary gateway through which people access ESPN: for years, it was scores. That made sense, because for a long time, it was content that only ESPN had. You might have gone to ESPN.com first to check a game score, then you stayed to read an article.

But now ESPN is making its mobile experience video-first, and that took major discussion and head-scratching. It took a meeting one year ago between King, CTO Aaron LaBerge, head of digital John Kosner, digital product chief Ryan Spoon, and ESPN.com editor-in-chief Chad Millman, in which, King says, “We asked ourselves the hard question of how prepared our digital products are to change the relationship we have with our audience.”

ESPN over the top

Last August, Disney spent $1 billion for a 33% ownership stake in MLBAM Tech, the extremely successful video-streaming business of Major League Baseball. And Disney made its plans clear: BAM Tech would help it build “a new ESPN-branded multi-sport subscription streaming service.” In other words, an OTT (over the top) service, a la HBO Now.

Except not like HBO Now. Disney CEO Bob Iger has recently made it clear that at least at first, the ESPN OTT service will not be the thing that fans want: everything that airs on ESPN, available without cable. On Disney’s earnings call last week, he said outright, “We don’t have plans right now to take ESPN as it is currently distributed and go over the top with it… Frankly, we don’t really feel we’ve got a great need to do that.”

So it won’t be a full buffet, then. ESPN’s first OTT offering will be additive, with separate programming from what’s on the ESPN television channel.

Is that really good enough? It sounds like a brief pit stop on the way to a full standalone option. The larger question here is: does ESPN really think people who have cut cable will ever come back? King is still so reluctant to say no that he lists examples of why a current cord-cutter might still eventually need cable.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen if people buy a home, or if they marry someone for whom cable is a behavior, or if they [visit] their parents’ house and they have a decision about how to spend their time and they decide to watch some cable,” he says. “I can’t predict that. The answer is out there somewhere.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video series.

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