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SportsCenter hits milestone

From its humble start to the "big show,'' ESPN personalities discuss the show's route to tonight's 25,000th episode.

By SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


BRISTOL, Conn. -- The studio was only three-quarters finished, yet the show had to go on.

Even as hosts George Grande and Lee Leonard launched ESPN's first SportsCenter on Sept. 7, 1979, those working on the set could clearly hear bulldozers trolling the muddy lot outside. At one point during the 30-minute broadcast, a runaway bulldozer collided with a production trailer, sending the technicians inside flying.

One thing hasn't changed since that shaky debut nearly 23 years ago. ESPN is "the worldwide leader in construction," jokes SportsCenter anchor Rich Eisen, about its buildings going up and being expanded all the time.

But these days Eisen and his colleagues occupy one of the most dazzling, energetic and fortunately soundproof sets in television. And most nights they produce a show to match.

At 11 tonight, ESPN will mark the 25,000th episode of its flagship show with a special 90-minute installment of SportsCenter. If it seems awfully convenient that the milestone falls on the show's most important night and time slot, well, it is. ("It's pretty close," director of communications Mike Soltys said of the 25K count. "That's my story and I'm sticking to it.")

The network has touted the approach to 25,000 relentlessly for a month, yet underneath the hype bubbles a bit of honest wonderment -- especially among longtime employees such as Chris Berman -- that SportsCenter has become what it has. The show has so much influence that some critics say many athletes, in the quest for their own "SportsCenter highlight," are more interested in making flashy dunks or celebratory dances than executing fundamentals.

If it weren't for ESPN's humble beginnings, it might never have become so popular. The dearth of highlights during most of the show's first decade meant anchors had to learn to fill time by talking about the day's events, not just narrating them. Berman's Friday-night Swami predictions and habit of bestowing goofy nicknames led to the irreverence that marked the "big show," the mid-1990s Keith Olbermann/Dan Patrick pairing that cemented SportsCenter's importance in pop culture.

While Olbermann took some of that magic with him after his nasty split from the network in 1997, the show endures. Ratings are solid; the network estimates as many as 88-million viewers tune in every month. The anchors continue to write and ad-lib the show, an exercise they say keeps the show fresh.

"Our personalities are allowed to come out," 10-year anchor Linda Cohn said. "It's why SportsCenter has stood the test of time."

* * *

While the show itself has evolved, physically it hasn't budged. The network's now-giant complex, overrun with satellite dishes, seems to dwarf the town of Bristol, situated halfway between Boston and New York City. To most visitors it seems odd that such a powerful network is stationed in such a remote area, but in the late 1970s the land met the sole requirement of being cheap.

Highlights, now the hallmark of SportsCenter, were hard to come by in the early days. At first the network could show clips from only the events it aired, often some University of Connecticut matchup. Even when ESPN traveled to big events, getting highlights on the air could be a struggle. Berman remembers returning from a game at Tampa Stadium and landing in Connecticut at 1 a.m., speeding through a snowstorm to get the clips of Lee Roy Selmon and Doug Williams on by 2.

It took a few years to coax ABC and NBC to allow ESPN to use their highlights. When CBS wouldn't budge at all, according to Michael Freeman's book,ESPN, The Uncensored History, ESPN simply started airing them without permission until the network gave in.

Executive editor John Walsh joined SportsCenter in 1988, and focused on making the show meatier, emphasizing news as much as game recaps. He hired top writers and reporters such as Andrea Kremer, Jimmy Roberts, Chris Mortensen and Charley Steiner.

But he also needed star anchors to coordinate the broadcasts, including Robin Roberts and Patrick, who came from CNN in 1989. In turn, Patrick encouraged Walsh to bring Olbermann from Los Angeles' KCBS two years later.

The chemistry between Olbermann and Patrick was undeniable, and they built on it. By the mid-1990s their 11 p.m. SportsCenter was can't-miss TV, not just because of the clever catch phrases and excellent writing, but because viewers had to see what Olbermann and Patrick might do next.

"If you could sneak something past the censors, that was the whole point," Olbermann said. "It was a conspiratorial insurrection against the sports establishment" and the viewers felt like they were in on the joke.

Olbermann's frequent battles with management and some co-workers became legendary, and in 1997, more or less by mutual agreement, he left for his own show at MSNBC and now works mostly for ABC Radio, while often filling in on CNN.

He has been gone from ESPN for nearly as long as he worked there, yet people approach him all the time about SportsCenter. "It used to drive me nuts," he said, until the late Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, a friend of Olbermann's, told him why she didn't mind that fans asked her to twitch her nose decades after her role as Samantha had ended. Either it meant she had done something that had made an impact on society, she said, or another rerun had aired and she soon would be getting another royalty check.

* * *

Berman now does the NFL and Patrick has sharply reduced his SportsCenter appearances, preferring to focus on his ESPN Radio show. Among the stars now are Cohn, Eisen, Stuart Scott and Kenny Mayne. Each brings his or her own style, and tries to strike a balance between highlights and quips.

"Our job is to complement," Patrick said. "The entree is SportsCenter. I still view us as parsley. Or we could be dessert, or maybe we're the corn on the cob. But we shouldn't be the steak. That's not right. But I'm as guilty as anybody. I get full of myself too. You think, what am I doing? But you still want to add your personality."

In some ways the network is as alone in the world as it is in Bristol. Over the years a number of SportsCenter imitators have tried to carve their own niche, but none has succeeded. Even CNN's Sports Tonight, once anchored by Fred Hickman and Nick Charles and seen as a worthy competitor to the 11 p.m. SportsCenter, disappeared after undergoing several changes.

While others fade, Disney-owned ESPN just keeps growing. At the moment, it seems SportsCenter's biggest competition could come from its own 24-hour sports news network, ESPNews, seen in about 31-million homes. "It is getting there," Walsh said. "It's going to force SportsCenter to be different."

It is too early to tell what those differences might be, but to Berman, the advances so far are almost laughable.

He thinks about his career and remembers one of his childhood heroes, astronaut Alan Shepard, first a pioneering Mercury astronaut, then a Gemini astronaut, "and he stayed with it to land on the moon and hit a golf club."

"We did feel, those of us at the beginning, that we were like the Mercury astronauts," Berman said. "We went around the earth once or twice, splashed down and waited for the boat to pick us up. Sometimes I felt like the chimp going out there. But we could make it.

"I'm proud that I stayed with it. We felt like Mercury astronauts in the beginning, but right now we've overshot the moon."

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