On Monday, Sage Steele will return to SportsCenter after four years away, where she will host the morning program alongside Jay Harris and Randy Scott. While this edition will air on ESPN for the time being, it will be moved over to ESPN2 in 2018 when Mike Greenberg’s show launches.
In a lengthy in-studio interview with Dan Patrick on Thursday (above), Steele laid out her vision for the show. The too-long-didn’t-watch summary is that they will be attempting to throw it back to the glory days of SportsCenter. Highlights. Standings. Sports as an escape. Whether the show can gain enough traction with viewers that they will follow it down the dial when this happens remains to be seen. But, I have my doubts that when the dust settles more people will watch this show than Undisputed on FS1.
Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post did yeoman’s work transcribing the relevant portions of the interview:
"“Trust me, I have a problem with it,” Steele said of the coverage. “I do not look forward to discussing this on ‘SportsCenter,’ I really don’t. And we are going to be doing things a little bit differently. I mean, on NFL Mondays, you will see every highlights from every game played on Sunday. Every one. Doesn’t mean they’re all going to be two minutes, but we’re getting back to that, to more sports — I know, God forbid. And not that we haven’t done it on other shows, but that was a key for me. So these discussions need to be had, and there are crossover topics like this that will be discussed. But [I’ll be] talking to Herm Edwards, and [guests like that] don’t want to talk about it all that time, either, because it is what it is. Is there news on it? No, so move on.”"
In this portion, Steele was talking about Colin Kaepernick. We’ll get to more on that later, but I want to discuss what she said about the highlights. As has been exhaustively discussed, this was a totally different era. Very few people had access to watch most of these games, let alone digest the highlights immediately on their social media feeds. On an NFL Monday, 70% of the games they’d be showing highlights for ended by 4 pm ET. We all saw live highlights of those games, either in updates for the games we were watching, or on Red Zone, or online, or on SportsCenter the night before. A lot of them are obsolete by 7 am.
"“I will always go back to why did people turn us on when Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were hosting, and why are they turning us on now?” she said. “And in my opinion, it’s not to hear about Charlottesville. … We will have some opinions, the three of us, but I don’t believe it’s about us. It’s about the games, it’s about the highlights. Let’s show some standings. Let’s talk about what’s coming up tonight. I’m just old, I guess, old-school.”"
Beyond the fact that we’re never going back to a time where highlights are fresh, Patrick and Olbermann were star attractions with their personalities. Their wit and wry humor made viewers feel in on the joke, and people would lie around and watch reruns of the same highlights they already saw because it was fun to memorize the lines. Can Steele, Scott, and Harris deliver them with anything approaching that pizazz?
"“I just disagree with the whole premise of the issue that people have,” Steele said of Kaepernick’s unemployment. Ravens owner “Steve Bisciotti, along with the other 31 owners in this league, they run a business,” she said, “and they have a right to make the decision that they believe is best for their business, just like Colin Kaepernick has the right to express his opinion and do what’s best for him, for his brand, for his career. There’s repercussions to both. I have no problem with what Steve Bisciotti did and I would have no problem if Steve Bisciotti brought him in [to the Ravens]. How much of a problem did we have with Jerry Jones, with Greg Hardy over the last couple of years? “You know, people pick and choose what they want to freak out about,” Steele went on, in comments that were picked up by Breitbart. “New York City yesterday,” she said, referencing the protests concerning Kaepernick. “I mean, go for it, that is your right. I think it’s comical. I think Colin Kaepernick, he would still be on the Niners if he were that good. Other teams would have picked him up. People need talent. There’s no question about that, right? If he were that good, someone would have picked him up."
This is going to sound really mean, but this is where you get if you apply her logic about Kaepernick to her own career: Sage Steele had a right to express the opinions that she felt were right for her brand, and ESPN management had a right to pull her off Countdown right before the NBA playoffs, put her on the bench for six months save for a few remote SportsCenters, and make her move from Scottsdale, Az. to Avon, Ct., where she told Dan Patrick she will need anti-depressants to brave the cold winter. If she were that good, wouldn’t she be on a bigger property than ESPN2 SportsCenter next year? ESPN needs talent. There’s no question about that, right?
"“Or maybe he is, and these team owners, the PR staffs say ‘is it worth it?’ Because the fallout that comes with it — fans, suite luxury box holders — there’s a lot of money involved in that. And you have to consider all those things as a business owner. That is his right, to say we don’t want to really go there. And by the way, Ray Lewis back in ‘01, 2000, completely different time. More serious, of course — he was never convicted of that, and people forget that. Ray Rice, obviously things worked themselves out, as they should have, in my opinion. But we pick and choose, and I think it’s fascinating that oh this is a big deal, and this is not. They are business owners; they have a right.”"
Ray Lewis was not convicted of murder, but he was convicted for obstruction of justice. We’ve covered that in-depth before and don’t need to go into all the details.
I’ve defended Steele’s right to her opinion in the past, and believe she took far too much racial backlash from people like Miko Grimes. But, I’m skeptical that her vision of SportsCenter will be viable in 2017 and 2018. If you spend too much time showing highlights from the night before now, you’re doomed from the start. There’s a reason that ESPN has made SportsCenter more personality and conversation driven, and that First Take is in the main network lineup despite the fact that it’s critically panned. Viewers have spoken.
As far as sticking to sports, I actually am sympathetic to Steele’s belief that people turn to ESPN as an escape. I do believe that the Colin Kaepernick story has been overexposed. Zero of the top 100 trafficked posts at The Big Lead in 2017 have been about Kaepernick. That being said, posts about him also tend to do above average traffic. It stands to reason that as injury attrition and/or ineffectiveness pervade the quarterback ranks, one of the 32 franchises will give him a call.
The days of SportsCenter as a prism of sticking to sports have already come to an end, and my gut feeling is that despite some of the loud voices lobbying for a return to those days they’ll never successfully return.