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Behind the scenes of SportsCenter's new era at ESPN

Daniel Roberts

On Friday, ESPN debuted a new edition of SportsCenter exclusively for the ESPN app.

The host is Scott Van Pelt, who shoots the app edition of the show immediately after hosting the live SportsCenter at midnight for cable television. That midnight time slot has seen enormous recent success: viewership was up 62% in May, and the May 27 edition, immediately after Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, was the most-watched episode of the show since it started in 2015.

SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt will go up every day by 7 a.m. in the top spot on the ESPN app. In the debut episode, Van Pelt recapped Game 1 of the NBA Finals, recapped the return of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, highlighted the recent success of Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola, and delivered his “Best Thing I Saw Today,” a popular segment from the Midnight cable show—all in 2 minutes and 43 seconds. He concluded, “That’s what we’re going to do here on the ESPN app. We will see you tomorrow morning and every morning, and we’ll see you at Midnight on TV if you want to spend an hour with me.”

Putting a condensed version of its flagship news show on its free app every day may look like a simple and obvious progression for ESPN, which recently redesigned the app and launched its first OTT pay product, ESPN Plus, inside the same app.

But behind the scenes, the effort has been part of a major undertaking to roll out three new mobile-first, social-friendly SportsCenter editions: for Snapchat, for Twitter, and now for the ESPN app. Last year ESPN also launched “SportsCenter Right Now,” ultra-brief news updates that air on cable and radio inside existing ABC and ESPN programming

All four of these were launched in the past nine months and have involved new hires, new hosts, and new thinking for ESPN. These were a long time coming, and critics may say they are late to arrive. (ESPN got a new president in March, former Disney consumer products exec James Pitaro, after the December departure of John Skipper.)

Together, all the new SportsCenter formats constitute the next era of the SportsCenter brand, which once prompted images of two men behind a news anchor desk, but now stands for many different things to different sports fans. SportsCenter is as old as ESPN (1979) and remains the most important program at ESPN—for many people, the two are synonymous. But the new formats are an effort to capture millennials who may not care about SportsCenter.

ESPN is striving to bring more people into the SportsCenter fold (while avoiding all those accusations of liberal bias), even if they are people who will never sit down and watch a full episode of SportsCenter on television.

Yahoo Finance had the chance to step behind the scenes of all four new SportsCenter editions, and speak to multiple executives about the future of the company’s flagship program. Read on for more. 

Scott Van Pelt hosts SportsCenter at Midnight ahead of the Stanley Cup Finals Game 3 in June 2017. (Oath/go90)

SportsCenter on Snapchat

The first new SportsCenter for the digital age was on Snapchat’s Discover channel, and launched six months ago. ESPN posts two of them each day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The hosts on Snapchat are a rotating cast of ESPN on-air talents, all young and diverse, and not all of them full-time ESPN staffers: SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan, former Fox Sports host Katie Nolan, ESPN Radio host Jason Fitz, NFL reporter Andrew Hawkins, SportsCenter Africa co-host Treavor Scales, ESPN Radio contributing host Mike Golic Jr., and comedian Cy Amundson.

The 5 p.m. edition shoots at noon, and on May 29 the host was Golic Jr., who that morning had also guest-hosted “Golic and Wingo,” his father’s daily radio show. Golic Jr. checked a few sentences at a time from a script, then spoke them into the camera, segment by segment—clad in a short-sleeved shirt. The show is not unscripted, but it is far looser than a televised SportsCenter. The episodes are typically under seven minutes long, and take around 30 minutes to shoot.

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One quality you notice consistently if you watch a few days of SportsCenter on Snapchat: humor. Regardless of the host, the Snapchat edition tends to be a lighter, funnier show. Almost every segment ends with a punch line.

“That’s kind of by design,” says Tim Dwyer, who produces the 5 p.m. SportsCenter on Snapchat, “because we trust that if you care about sports, you’ve already seen the highlights.”

That notion is echoed across the board by everyone working on any SportsCenter show today: the idea that it cannot be a straight highlights program anymore, because fans have seen the highlights on their phones. Instead, SportsCenter anchors have to re-deliver the news with an added thought or stat or joke in order to make it worth your time. Scott Van Pelt says the same about his midnight show: “If I came on and teased the highlights of the Yankees and Astros, as if everyone watching didn’t already know, it would be mocked.”

Dwyer adds that when the Snapchat show was first in development, one senior staffer said the feel they wanted was Seth Meyers in his SNL days: “Funny, but can also deliver news straight.” That directive led them to bring on Cy Amundson.

Mike Golic Jr. shoots SportsCenter for Snapchat on May 29, 2018. (Daniel Roberts/Oath)

ESPN says the Snapchat show is getting 3 million viewers per day, that 75% of viewers are under the age of 25, and maybe most importantly, that half of viewers watch three times or more each week.

There’s just one problem: Snap, the company, is struggling mightily. It lost $60 million last quarter, and added fewer new users than expected. The stock is down 23% this year as short-sellers rejoice. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Chrissy Teigen have tweeted that they’re done using the app.

With its own cable programming, and the show on its own app, ESPN is in control. But with Snapchat, ESPN is beholden to Snap’s business success, and its rules. SportsCenter on Snapchat is a two-year contract with Snap. It’s a business partnership, not ESPN just posting content on Snapchat like any user would. ESPN has 15 full-time people working on the Snapchat show, and can only hope the app doesn’t completely go out of style. “This is really our first cut at doing something that isn’t ESPN-owned and operated,” says Dwyer. “If Snapchat were to crumble, I hope it doesn’t, but we could take it to other platforms.”

SportsCenter Live on Twitter

At its Newfronts presentation in May, ESPN announced it would soon launch a daily “Twitter take” on SportsCenter. But anyone who expected an actual show (like on Snapchat) might be disappointed.

The format debuted on May 25 as a Twitter Moment, collections of tweets on a single news topic that Twitter rolled out in 2015. ESPN is calling it SportsCenter Live, and created a new @SCLive Twitter account to showcase them—but it isn’t really live. The first edition included a mix of animated GIFs, tweets from ESPN personalities and athletes, and a short on-camera rant by Stephen A. Smith.

Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s SVP of social content, says the decision to present SportsCenter as Twitter Moments doesn’t mean that they can’t include longer videos more similar to the traditional SportsCenter look, or can’t cover multiple events in one Moment. There also may be multiple Moments posted in one day.

“It can be all those things,” Spoon says. “I think a little bit of the nuance of how it works was complicated to convey, and was also not fully understood by any of us. It can be straightforward, like breaking news happens and we cover it with a compilation from host, analyst, coach, player tweet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also create something new, like Stephen A. going live for three minutes with his reaction after the game. If we do this well and correctly, every implementation can look and feel different than one another.”

The reasonable question a devoted Twitter user might ask: Are these SportsCenter Twitter Moments really any different from the Moments that Twitter already creates to recap big sports events? Is the format of a Twitter Moment, even one curated by ESPN, the most compelling offering ESPN could produce for SportsCenter on Twitter?

After all, as Spoon notes, “Every time you press send, there’s a cost associated with it. And that cost is not financial. It is a choice. And particularly in the world of Facebook and Instagram, what you choose to publish has to be what you determine to be the best and most valuable thing in that moment.”

In addition to the SC Live daily Twitter Moments, ESPN this summer will launch its popular Fantasy Focus podcast, hosted by fantasy guru Matthew Berry, as a live show on Twitter.

‘SportsCenter Right Now’ updates

Victoria Arlen prepares to shoot a SportsCenter Right Now update on May 29, 2018. (Daniel Roberts/Oath)

The “SportsCenter Right Now” news hits that ESPN launched last August air in the middle of TV shows like “First Take” and ESPN Radio programs like “The Will Cain Show.” At first, they were also getting posted to Twitter. Now that SportsCenter Live on Twitter has begun, there’s a risk of brand confusion. Recently, the “Right Now” updates have not consistently gone on social media anyway. In other words: all of these formats are experiments, and those that gain faster traction will naturally get more promotion, perhaps to the detriment of other experiments.

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The SportsCenter Right Now updates, which are typically shorter than two minutes, are hosted by SportsCenter anchor Toni Collins, Will Reeve (yes, son of Christopher Reeve), or Victoria Arlen, a former Paralympian who regained use of her legs and competed last year on “Dancing with the Stars.” The updates are meant to be straight news hits, so in contrast with Snapchat, they allow for less fun. Arlen says, “You’re delivering the news, but you can sprinkle a little hot sauce on it, depending what the vibe is.”

Arlen, who at 23 is the youngest anchor on the SportsCenter team, says that when she thinks of SportsCenter, she still thinks of the cable television program—and she presumes that everyone else who works on the various short-form SportsCenter segments feels the same way. “My dream is definitely to be on the big show one day,” she says. “That is the O.G. That is what still continues to drive all of us, and me especially… When I hear ESPN, I think of [the SportsCenter intro music] ‘da na na, da na na.'”

SportsCenter on the ESPN App

Indeed, most sports fans across America likely still think of SportsCenter as what it was for decades: a news and highlights show with two anchors behind a desk. They likely still think of iconic former SportsCenter anchors like Dan Patrick (now with NBC), Stuart Scott (who died in 2015), Keith Olbermann (returning this summer to ESPN after a 21-year hiatus), or Linda Cohn (still anchoring periodically).

But with the various digital versions of the show now circulating, much younger sports fans, many of whom did not grow up watching SportsCenter on a television every night, may soon think of something shorter, on their phone screen.

And that’s just fine by Scott Van Pelt. “Go back and watch an old SportsCenter,” he says. “The model was, ‘Hi, hello: What happened tonight? Stay tuned.’ The purpose on camera was to tease a result that wasn’t known. Well, try that in 2018. Our charge now is to try to feed you something you didn’t already know, or present it in a way where it’s clever enough that we can tell you something you do know, but you’re still down for the relay of that message.”

Van Pelt is the example that ESPN executives hold up these days as the face of SportsCenter. There’s an irony to that, since the people hosting the other digital formats are all decades younger than him (he’s 51). But his show is the most-watched SportsCenter, and it is unique because it’s at midnight (EST), when he has the benefit of covering results from games that have ended. He is also the only host (for now) committed to hosting both a traditional cable program and a digital-only program every day.

The ESPN app had 15.7 million users as of April, according to Comscore. That’s more than the next three biggest non-ESPN sports apps (NFL Mobile, MLB At Bat, and Bleacher Report) combined. With the new redesign, the daily Van Pelt offering, and ESPN Plus subscribers, that 15.7 million is likely to grow. But it still pales in comparison to ESPN’s 86 million cable subscribers, even though that number slides each quarter.

Live sports broadcasting is in an awkward period where everyone can see where things are headed, but it’s going to take a few more years to get there. “You’re seeing a migration, but it’s going to take more time,” says George Pyne, a former Nascar COO and IMG president who now runs investment portfolio Bruin Sports Capital, which recently acquired Italian sports streaming company Deltatre. “I think sports content’s going to remain valuable for a long time, it’s just going to be consumed differently, and the transition economically will shake out probably over five to 10 years, not 24 to 36 months.”

Norby Williamson, EVP of studio production at ESPN, compares the life cycle of SportsCenter to McDonald’s: the chain has to regularly innovate and create new offerings, but it can’t ever stop serving hamburgers. “If you just give people what they expect, at some point they will become tired of what they expect,” he says. “You need to give people what they want slightly before they know they want it. But the extreme of that is taking the hamburgers out of McDonald’s.”

Some critics feel that ESPN has already come too close to “taking the hamburgers out” with some of its recent experiments like “The Six” with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, or “Barstool Van Talk” with two hosts from the web site Barstool Sports. But Williamson says, “I know there’s all the noise. Listen, I was here for the ‘good old days’ and the good old days weren’t as good as now. We didn’t have 17 million people watching the NBA on our network then.”

Other critics are convinced that SportsCenter just isn’t what sports fans want or need anymore, in any form. “I’m not sure it’s really fixable,” BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield told Yahoo Finance last year.People don’t need SportsCenter like they used to.”

Van Pelt is more bullish, especially as he prepares to host the shorter version for the app every day. “All of us are just trying to figure out the place where people want our content, whether it’s a meal or a bite,” he says. “If SportsCenter ultimately becomes this thing where people find us on an app for two minutes at a time, well, all right. Maybe the show will live there, maybe that’s what it becomes in five years.”

ESPN executives, and parent company Disney, likely do not imagine that scenario in the same happy terms. But they’re preparing, at last, for all possible media futures.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. He closely covers Disney and the business of ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite

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