Earlier this baseball season, Kansas City Royals’ slugger Mike Sweeney found himself on third base, heading for home.
Third base coach Rich Dauer tried to encourage him. "If you’re safe," Dauer said, "you make Sports Center," and that is exactly what happened. Sweeney crossed the plate; Sports Center ran a clip.
When it premiered on ESPN, on Sept. 7, 1979, Sports Center was the first show of its kind -- a live, hour-long, several-times-a-day recap of the latest news from the world of jocks and their games. It has since then turned into an institution.
As Mike Tierney writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sports Center "has become multilingual, with versions done overseas in Portuguese, Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin. Its anchors have performed re-creations in 10 films. It has been referred to on at least 12 TV shows and been mocked by ‘Saturday Night Live.’ It inspired a network series, ‘SportsNight,’ which was canceled after some 24,950 fewer episodes than its model."
That last fact refers to Sports Center’s having recently celebrated its 25,000th live broadcast, a milestone for which it congratulated itself ceaselessly, devoting almost as much air time to it as it did to the prospect of a baseball strike.
I have not seen all 25,000 programs. But I have seen enough of them to know that Sports Center demonstrates both the best and worst of what television journalism has to offer these days.
Best: Sports Center misses nothing. It has every picture from every game that has any degree of interest to any fan in any city. It offers analysis that is often interesting, sometimes fascinating. It offers interviews that are often interesting, sometimes meaningful. It has raised to an art form the presentation of irrelevant but intriguing statistics. It has a sense of humor.
Worst: It has too much of a sense of humor. Sports Center anchors frequently seem more interested in cracking a joke than relaying a fact, and their wise-cracking deliveries are more appropriate to a second-rate comedy club than a first-rate news program. In fact, some of the anchors were standup comics before signing on with ESPN. One of them, the preposterously and tediously deadpan Kenny Mayne, names Johnny Carson as his idol rather than Mel Allen or Vin Scully or Bob Costas.
Dan Patrick, one of ESPN’s best anchors, and one whose sense of humor is all the more effective for its restraint, admits that Sports Center has a problem. "Sometimes, we put entertainment before information -- and that’s wrong."
Sports Center has also gotten too gimmicky of late, loading up the broadcast with swooshing sound effects, overly-dazzling graphics, pointless top ten lists and a lot of rock and roll music in the background; the viewer may be forgiven for thinking he has clicked onto MTV by mistake. It also runs the occasionally tasteless feature story, such as the recent piece on the smelly hat of St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Steve Kline, upon which reporter Mark Schwarz spat a "loogie." Kline rubbed it into the fabric as the camera zoomed in for a close-up.
What it all seems to indicate is that Sports Center does not trust itself.
Afraid that it cannot sufficiently engage its audience with information, it piles on the entertainment. Afraid that substance is not enough, it slathers on the style. Afraid that sports is but a sidelight even for the sports fan, it applies coat after coat of shtick. Afraid that scores and stats are boring, it serves up expectoration.
None of this is necessary. Sports Center remains what it has been almost since the beginning, the best example of sports journalism on TV. If it trusted itself more, it could be even better.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .