BRISTOL, CT -- "There was a different mood in our meetings on Saturday." Those are the words of 20-year SportsCenter veteran Steve Levy, referencing the day that Fox Sports 1 launched the most expensive threat to the venerable ESPN franchise in at least a decade. It's great that ESPN considers the competition seriously and uses it as a chance to, as Levy calls it, "reenergize." Then again, you might as well just wonder ... why?
ESPN doesn't necessarily have to get better. Remember, we have still yet to see all of the hires that were made in recent months (Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver, Jason Whitlock) take effect. Yet, they still have beaten the stuffing out of Fox Sports Live in the show's first few days on the air. The Worldwide Leader is in a place where they can reload and beef things up even if they don't have to.
Consider this: Fox Sports Live brought on the hilarious Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole to anchor the show. ESPN, who has humorous anchors of their own like Scott Van Pelt, have responded somewhat. They announced yesterday that Kenny Mayne -- whose decreased role has also somewhat depreciated his status as one of the funniest anchors the show has ever had -- will return to anchor SportsCenter from Los Angeles with either Neil Everett and Stan Verrett as part of a recent contract extension.
Though Fox considers ESPN a bit on the dorky side, there are a lot of sports fans that wonder if ESPN has lost the thinking man. Oh, let's go rehire one of the smartest broadcasters of the last 20 years just to crowd the 11 p.m. ET hour even more (yeah, I'm talking about Olbermann, wingnuts). While we are at it, go get one of the biggest newsmakers of the 2012 election in Silver, and bring him back to his roots in sports. Just to make sure we haven't lost our edge, lets bring back Whitlock, a man who will flat out speak his mind at anytime.
Sure, ESPN could just go to war with Fox (and to a lesser extent, NBC and CBS) with what they have, but why not make their own noise while everybody else is touting their new products? Ignoring the quality of ESPN (which ranges from 30 for 30 and College Gameday to First Take and Numbers Never Lie), it's pretty safe to say that the climb for other networks is far uphill, and getting no easier.
I made the pilgrimage to Bristol on Wednesday. You try not to be starstruck but you do a bit of a Chocolate Factory vibe when visiting. It's a massive campus, and only growing. Bristol does sort of live down to its reputation of being pretty boring, but seeing how all of the sports sausage gets made is fun for a guy like me pretty much anywhere. I'll admit I was excited.
A recurring theme for the day was the network's plans to give SportsCenter "a little more personality," as President John Skipper put it during his media session. This appears to be an ethos at the network, and also one of the aspects of the campus' new airplane hangar-sized Digital Center 2, which opens next spring. Though I've never thought of it myself (probably because I cover all these people), one of the network's concerns is that often, people don't know who is anchoring the show. This is one of the many problems their new digital center is supposed to solve.
The center provides SportsCenter with several revamped looks, offering a half-dozen sets from which anchors can host the show or analysts can shoot segments chatting. One of Skipper's other challenges with SportsCenter was finding a way to differentiate the 18 hours of the program that air daily. Having each show from a different set (and with the L.A. show, different cities) is a start.
Whether this makes you like SportsCenter more or less is almost irrelevant, as it's going to remain the dominant show for the foreseeable future. What's important is that the network sees the show growing a little complacent, a little similar, a little diluted, and also facing new competition, and it's tried to adjust. "We like competition," Skipper said. "We feel it will make us sharper and better."
Elsewhere, the network laid out its plans for the Olbermann show, since Skipper claims that "we [at ESPN] want the No. 1 competition to ESPN to come from inside ESPN." The show will feature a monologue from Keith at the top of the show, which in rehearsals have apparently lasted anywhere from two to 15 minutes, and had Skipper comparing Olbermann to what Jon Stewart does for the news (remember, Olbermann will NOT be political). There will be at least one guest per show, and there's also the possibility for magazine show-style feature reporting.
There were also panels on the NFL and college football, which featured a spirited debate on paying athletes from the College Gameday crew, whom all the while kept stating that our media session wasn't the place to have the debate. It was another reminder that ESPN has full access to what are probably the two most popular leagues in all of sports: the NFL and the SEC. There appears to be no oversaturation for either in the near future, as the network keeps launching NFL shows and will start the SEC Network on Aug. 21, 2014.
That's what really matters, anyway. SportsCenter can be the most amazing piece of sports television there is or devolve into a Bayless-ian smog every night ... ESPN has what the masses want to watch. The NFL, the SEC and the NBA are all leagues that bring consistent big audiences. Until Fox Sports 1 can chip into any of those three (Skipper sounded ready for battle on the upcoming NBA rights negotiations, though he knows the price will go up) it can occasionally bring in spikes of viewers, but not the consistent numbers required to go head-to-head with ESPN.
I came away from the whole event wondering what actually could stop the folks in Bristol. They seem determined -- through live games, new and returning programs, and multiple platforms -- not only to beat the competition, but beat it up. It's going to be interesting to watch anybody try.