BRISTOL, Conn. — Former ESPN anchor George Grande says that when he signed on to host the first SportsCenter in 1979, he had a feeling there might be a market for more than just the 3 minutes of sports people were used to seeing on the local news.
He was right. On Thursday, ESPN will air its 50,000th SportsCenter, the network’s flagship show of highlights, news and analysis that has had a major impact on the nation’s sports culture.
“It’s changed the expectation of every sports fan in the United States,” said Dennis Deninger, a former ESPN executive who now runs the sports communications graduate program at Syracuse University. “We now expect to see highlights from every game, wherever it is played. If there is something odd or strange anywhere — a triple play — we expect to be able to see it, and see it immediately. That’s what this show has done.”
It also has given the job of sportscaster national celebrity status, blurred some of the lines between entertainment and news, and in some cases had an impact on the sports themselves, said Pamela Laucella, the academic director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University.
“When the show highlights a dunk, catch, touchdown or goal, athletes know they’ve made it when they’re on SportsCenter and the week’s top 10 plays,” she said.
Deninger said SportsCenter has also made foreign the idea of sitting down and watching an entire game on television to many viewers who have grown up with ESPN, and few fans, he said, pick up a newspaper to read about a game anymore.
“Game stories are basically dinosaurs,” he said. “People have already seen that on SportsCenter. You have to do personal features and find different layers.”
Tim Brooks, a television historian and author of “The Complete Director to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” said the show is the major reason ESPN was able to establish itself as the leading television destination for the sports fan.
“It became the reason to come back to ESPN between the games,” he said. “It’s like their clubhouse, almost. It certainly changed the way sports fans consume sports. They now had a clubhouse and this is the inner sanctum of that clubhouse.”
When SportsCenter first aired, about 1.4 million homes had access to ESPN, according to the network. That figure is about 98.3 million today.
“SportsCenter represents this true north, a home base that fans can go,” said Scott Van Pelt, one of the dozens of anchors who have hosted the show over the years. “It’s just where you go when you want to know what happened and why it happened.”
But the show has also changed over the years, adding features such as the top 10 plays, and sponsored segments with various experts, often former athletes. It now often emphasizes analysis of the big game or big news story of the day over highlights packages. Van Pelt, who has been with ESPN since 2001, says he’s not sure that’s such a good thing.
“What will suffer as a result of that is the other results from the other games,” he said. “I don’t know what the balance is. I think if I were programming it, it would be far more highlights and far less of me talking.”
Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president in charge of the show, said it will continue to evolve, especially as fans’ access to sports news keeps expanding across the Internet and from television to platforms such as phones and tablets.
He foresees a day when fans will be able to program a personalized SportsCenter, choosing the highlights and other segments they want to view.
“What we’re asking now is how do we take care of sports fans, whatever they want and wherever they want SportsCenter?” he said. “That’s the next step. That will be something to look for in the years to come.”