For many years, Walt Disney's (DIS -1.13%) ESPN had the one show that counted as daily, or even multiple-times-a-day, appointment viewing for sports fans.
It's hard to imagine for millennials, but it wasn't all that long ago when sports highlights were reduced to a few minutes at the end of a local news broadcast. In the pre-Internet days, even finding out a score often required calling a pay-per-minute hotline or simply waiting for the newspaper the next day.
SportsCenter changed all that. Through the 1980s and '90s, ESPN's sports news program gave fans a place to get scores, highlights, and extended sports coverage multiple times a day. Even while the Internet was growing in the 1990s and early 2000s, slow connection speeds and resistance to watching online video kept SportsCenter thriving.
Now, however, the landscape has dramatically changed. Fans can get scores, highlights, and any other sports information whenever they want from Twitter (TWTR -0.44%), YouTube, or a variety of online sources -- including ESPN.com. That has put the SportsCenter franchise at risk, perhaps even put it into an inevitable death spiral.
It's simply not possible for a highlights show to compete with the immediacy of a Tweet. If Stephen Curry hits an amazing shot or Connor McGregor scores an astounding knockout, it's on Twitter, YouTube, and countless other places in seconds. This changing landscape makes SportsCenter less special and, more importantly, less needed.
Disney doesn't agree and has invested heavily in propping up the brand, including building a new 194,000-square-foot production facility for the show on its Bristol, Conn., campus in 2014, and then adding new late-night and early-morning versions of the show in late 2015. It was a bold, expensive investment in what has always been the unassailable rock of the ESPN brand.
The problem is, it's not going to work, according to one of the show's most famous alumni.
Why is SportsCenter important to Disney/ESPN?
It's easy to see why ESPN wants SportsCenter to regain its former glory or at least maintain its current diminished-but-still-important standing. The network produces 6,700 hours of live SportsCenter each year, according to the Los Angeles Times, and compared with airing live sports, it's cheap programming.
"They are very dependent on it," sports consultant Lee Berke told the paper. "They are paying more for sports properties. SportsCenter is far less expensive for them to put on the air as long as they generate viewership and a decent rating for advertisers."
That explains why ESPN and Disney want it to work and why they have tried to reinvent the show, but Keith Olbermann -- who hosted a well-loved version of the show with Dan Patrick at its height of cultural relevance -- believes the company is making a big mistake.
Why Can't SportsCenter Be Fixed?
ESPN saw its overall ratings fall by about 10% in 2015, with live editions of SportsCenter down the same amount, Bloomberg reported in December. The new set and the new SportsCenter editions haven't helped. The new midnight live airing, hosted by Scott Van Pelt, offers more personality than previous highlight-driven versions of the show, but ratings haven't increased.
The Van Pelt edition averaged 659,000 viewers for 33 Tuesday-Friday shows from its Sept. 7 launch through Nov. 19, according to Sports Business Daily, down from the previous year's 712,000 viewers. That's not a knock on Van Pelt; it's that Disney isn't addressing the real problem, according to Olbermann.
Speaking on the Bill Simmons podcast, the former SportsCenter anchor brought up comments from former ESPN executive John Walsh in the early '90s saying that the company's research showed that no matter what it did -- whether it lost personalities or rights to a sport -- it would be dominant as long as it had SportsCenter.
"That's not true anymore," Olbermann said. "Because it can't be the centerpiece of the operation."
He continued: "But they clearly, I think you would agree with me, they don't know that. All the attempts to modify it are predicated on the idea that it can be what it was two years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago, when Dan and I did it."
Olbermann explained that it's simply impossible for the show to be what it once was because of the availability of sports online, as well as clips that are instantly accessible on Twitter, YouTube, and in other places.
"If the lead story in sports at 11 p.m. on a given night is that the New York Yankees' plane has disappeared and we think we see it circling the planet Neptune ... and your anchors are Ring Lardner and Jesus Christ for SportsCenter, this is the greatest baseball story of all time," he said. "And we think we see ... disembodied Babe Ruth orbiting Neptune with the Yankees plane, and you're sitting there going, 'But I want to know what happened with the Browns quarterback situation' -- you're not going to watch. I don't care who's anchoring, and I don't care what the story is."
It's simply a case of younger generations who get their information in ways that can't be duplicated by a sports show that may at any time be focused on something other than what they're interested in at that moment.
"There is no motivation except for old-time guys, who are our ages or even older, who want that sort of leisurely, well-done, paced kind of stroll through all the sports news," he said, "but we're dying off. Generations have come behind us who say, 'I just want to know who's the leading candidate to be the Browns quarterback next year,' and that's it."
Olbermann is right
While Olbermann and Simmons may both be considered disgruntled ex-ESPN employees, that doesn't mean that what was said during the podcast was incorrect. SportsCenter simply can't be what it was because the need it once filled simply no longer exists.
"You'd watch SportsCenter 20 years ago and I wouldn't know who won," Simmons said, explaining that his 1995 self could now just look up West Coast NBA scores on the Internet.
"As long as you're trying to create a situation where in which you say, 'No, no, no, none of that's true, it's just a question of the format,' you're going to get stuck investing huge sums of money in gigantic studios or specialized formats or new anchor teams," Olbermann said. "It's not solvable."
ESPN has been trying to recapture its old glory like a team bringing Brett Favre out of retirement hoping for a Super Bowl run. It's not going to happen again, and SportsCenter, no matter what tweaks the company makes, is going to be a product offering diminishing returns. There might still be value in that for Disney and ESPN, but you can't make Twitter or YouTube go away, and you can't change how millennials ingest information.
SportsCenter may fill airtime on ESPN for a long time to come, but it will never be the flagship the company desperately wants it become once again.
"There's just no future in it," Olbermann said. It's hard to argue with him.