'SportsCenter' highlight: 20,000 Milestone show prompts Smithsonian honor for ESPN TV sports landmark

Media

May 19, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

As if he ever needed proof of the impact that ESPN's "SportsCenter" has had on the American consciousness, sports or otherwise, anchor Dan Patrick got that confirmation upon the birth of his daughter Gracie five years ago.

While Patrick was waiting for his wife to deliver, the intern at the hospital wanted to talk sports, and when Gracie finally arrived, Patrick said he could hear the intern say that the baby was "en fuego," one of his pet phrases for an athlete who is in a groove.

And when Patrick could hear the intern humming the ubiquitous "SportsCenter" theme -- "da-da-da, da-da-da" -- he knew something was up.

"Once that happened, I'm thinking there's nothing sacred here," Patrick said last week. "Thank God my wife didn't hear him or I could see [a headline]: 'ESPN anchor's wife gives birth and kills intern.' "

Patrick really shouldn't have been surprised. From its premiere on Sept. 7, 1979 -- the day ESPN signed on -- through the commemoration of its 20,000th show two days ago, "SportsCenter," which will be honored today at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, has become the answer to the sports variation of the Zen question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"

Similarly, if an event takes place and it isn't on "SportsCenter," did it really happen?

And if so, does it really matter?

Said Bob Ley, one of only two original on-air personalities still at ESPN from the 1979 launch: "We've kind of made this up as we went along. We've shaped an entirely new field of endeavor. We're a part of the American culture, this entire network and 'SportsCenter.' It's a kind of generic name for sports news now."

"They're the thing," said Scott Garceau, sports director at Channel 2. "It's like talking about Coke. If someone says, 'Get me a Coke,' they may not necessarily mean a Coke, but they want a soft drink. Well, ESPN and 'SportsCenter' have kind of established that name in that regard."

Two all-sports news cable channels and similar shows on a host of other channels can trace their very existence to "SportsCenter" -- the most aired program in American television history, according to ESPN -- which created, then fed the American public's seemingly insatiable need for news and information.

"Our business and ESPN and, in a way, sports has grown. It's been geometrical rather than arithmetical," said Chris Berman, the other ESPN on-air person still there from the launch. "We like to think we've kept up and maybe helped script that growth."

It wasn't always that way, of course. In the early days, "SportsCenter" in general and ESPN in particular were thought of in the industry as peculiarities, with little more to show for themselves than highlights and more highlights, along with Berman's wacky nicknames.

But, as the years advanced, the show upgraded its news-gathering and analysis functions, hiring more and better anchors, reporters and producers.

The payoff came with its coverage of the 1989 earthquake that interrupted the World Series in the San Francisco Bay area. ESPN's telecasts attracted critical notice and ratcheted up "SportsCenter's" profile in the nation's consciousness.

"We got overlooked as history is written of the coverage because ABC did the game," Berman said. "But the fact is we were up first and we were on longer. It was an amazing performance."

Since then, the show's anchors have become celebrities, helped in no small way by a clever series of commercials that brought big-time athletes to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters to pay mocking tribute to "SportsCenter's" power.

In the process, some have wondered whether the show has sacrificed some of its journalistic edge in search of entertainment value.

"A guy with a [satellite] dish has got hundreds of choices. He comes to us, God willing, because we have a good reputation," Ley said. "He stays with us because we tell him what he wants to know and he enjoys watching us. When the fun outweighs the substance, then you've got an issue. But I don't think we have that."

"SportsCenter" has also taken some major hits from former insiders. Keith Olbermann, who was paired with Patrick on the signature Sunday 11 p.m. program, left ESPN last year for NBC and its all-news cable channel, MSNBC.

Olbermann fired a volley of charges in his wake, including allegations that "SportsCenter" is filled with mistakes and that its staff is under-qualified and overworked.

ESPN officials vociferously challenged Olbermann's contentions, labeling him a disgruntled employee who wanted more of the limelight to himself and didn't want to work or live in Connecticut.

"Keith, he got to the point where he didn't enjoy it anymore," said Patrick, who signed a five-year contract extension late last year. "Keith kept saying, 'What are you doing staying there?' and he wanted me to go to NBC. And I said, 'Keith, I enjoy it here. This is home for me.'

"Maybe he still doesn't understand that, but he's going to understand it because when he talks to me, he understands. I enjoy this place."

And every night, there are millions of Americans who agree with Patrick. They enjoy that place.

Banner evening

Camden Yards had a supporting role in Sunday night's 20,000th "SportsCenter." The opening featured a congratulatory message on the Oriole Park scoreboard. At the end, a banner marking No. 20,000 -- like the Cal Ripken 2,131 banner -- was shown being unfurled on the B&O warehouse. An ESPN spokeswoman said the 20,000 banner scene actually was shot at the warehouse, but the balloons and confetti shown with it during the telecast were an electronic enhancement.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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