Keith Olbermann Bearish on Future of SportsCenter (And All Generalist Studio Sports TV)

Ryan Glasspiegel

Keith Olbermann joined Jonah Keri’s Nerdist podcast for a two-part marathon late last week. Around the 1:19:00-mark of Part I, they began talking about contemporary sports media, and Olbermann, who as we’re all aware made his bones as a SportsCenter anchor alongside Dan Patrick in the 1990’s, spelled out doom and gloom for the future of the franchise:

"If you’re doing a sports broadcast that has to do with more than one sport at a time? Good-bye. There is no reason anymore for a consumer to watch SportsCenter, or the Fox version of SportsCenter, or the Canadian version of SportsCenter, or the Rogers Canadian version of SportsCenter, or SportsCenter in Spanish, or your local — I grew up watching Marv Albert do the local sports news on Channel 4 — and there’s no reason to watch that, because if they’re talking about football, and you hate football, ESPN supplies you with something at your fingertips about baseball, soccer, hockey, badminton, jai alai. By the way, there’s a jai alai channel. There’s a horse racing channel. There’s a dog racing channel. Eventually, there will be no market for these other multi-purpose shows, and you think about this, and say, ‘Oh it’s a new phenomenon, we’ve got some time to go.’ No, it’s the dark hours now. Just name to me, what’s the most recent, multi-sport, not connected to the NFL, not connected to game broadcast, what’s the last breakthrough TV sports show?"

Olbermann reckoned this to be Pardon the Interruption, which went on the air in 2001, and said that because of this prolonged stretch that there have not been many young talents who have differentiated themselves as big stars. He also said that when they point to First Take as a beacon of success (and qualified that he likes both Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith), that their record viewership had metrics akin to typical hourly numbers for the Hallmark Movies and Mystery channel, whatever that is. He acknowledged that his own most recent show never gained solid footing, and that live sports are still experiencing profound growth. He said that one-sport specialists will over take the generalists.

It does seem unlikely, in this era of media segmentation, that anybody will once again capture the relevance that SportsCenter had in the 1990’s when it was basically the only way you’d catch the highlights, and the personalities were larger than life. However, I don’t quite share Olbermann’s broader pessimism. Somewhere, somehow, the right talent and producers will come together and make general sports programming where viewership is essential, and therefore massive.

Maybe this will come from a well capitalized television network, or maybe it will just be people who create something incredible on their phones and initially gain a big following on Facebook or Snapchat. The barriers to entry are so low, and the platforms so diverse, that it’s only a matter of time before we realize that something else is the next SportsCenter or PTI. So, perhaps Olbermann’s right that cable sports television is on an inexorable downward slope, but if entities like Fox and ESPN are smart about integrating and co-opting the digital landscape, they’ll persevere.