John Parks
Jun 10, 2016 · 9 min read

Think back ten years ago to 2006. What were you doing in life? What type of phone were you using? What type of car were you driving? What did your diet consist of?

Hopefully, the answers to all of the above questions are drastically different than the answers one would currently answer with.

Throughout history there have been inventions that don’t just change their specific industries; they change the world. Electricity, flight, the Internet; all revolutionized how humans live their everyday lives.

Anytime there is change in any way of life, some adapt/evolve quicker, better and more seamlessly than others. One place where that is noticeable in today’s world? The media.

Two inventions in the last ten years have forever changed the way the media operates — social media and smart phones. They have changed the way we (the audience) consume content and they have forced companies to change the way they present us with content.

All of a sudden, cable networks were faced with an issue they had never had been faced with before; social media and smart phones were bringing content to the public on-demand, and thus, negating the need for people to watch television for their news, sports or entertainment. In addition, services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon streaming services that offered alternatives to hefty cable packages were becoming more and more popular amongst the public — specifically the younger demographic. Which brings us to present day….

Some networks saw the digital/mobile “revolution” coming. Others, are still adapting. One of the networks still adapting? ESPN.

It’s often said “playing with the lead” is one of the hardest things to do in sports. When you have the lead, it’s easy to get complacent and take the proverbial foot off the gas. And in my opinion, that’s exactly what ESPN is going through right now.

Make no mistake — ESPN isn’t in danger of going out of business. They’re still a billion dollar company that owns many of sports’ biggest broadcast rights. But the recent surge of mobile and digital platforms has caused them to have to rethink their strategy for attracting viewers and keep them from cutting the chord.

To accomplish those goals, here are three programming suggestions for the ‘Mothership.’

Cut back SportsCenter

One of the hardest things for any human to do is let go of something or someone that has been close to them for a number of years. For ESPN, that something is SportsCenter.

SportsCenter premiered in 1979. Since then, the show has aired more than 50,000 unique episodes, easily more than any other program on American television. To put it in the simplest form; it is ESPN’s flagship, its cash cow, its first love. It was, the reason many people tuned into the network in the first place.

Whereas print, radio and television used to be the only methods for consuming sports content (or any content for that matter), they are now almost secondary to digital and mobile platforms for obtaining news, highlights and commentary on events.

Growing up in the eastern time zone, I was almost never able to stay up to catch the endings of games — especially those on the west coast. As a result, I didn’t just have a desire to watch SportsCenter the following morning, I had a NEED to watch SportsCenter. There was no Twitter, no iPhone, no ScoreCenter app to turn to. ESPN offered a product to me, a sports fan, that no other media company could match.

Contrast that picture with today’s picture…

If there’s a game or ending to a game I miss, I wake up, roll over in bed, grab my iPhone, check ESPN’s ScoreCenter app for any score(s) I might have missed, spend ten minutes scrolling through Twitter and BAM! Just like that, I’m caught up on all the relevant information I’m looking for. All without getting out of bed, and more importantly to ESPN, all without turning on the TV.

And this is the issue that ESPN and essentially every other cable network is facing. Humans are becoming more and more reliant on mobile and digital platforms for their news and information than ever before. As a result, it has forced cable networks to morph into tech companies, creating content for platforms that up until the last five or so years, had been an afterthought.

As it stands, ESPN broadcasts roughly 10–12 hours of SportsCenter/day, Monday-Friday, on their main channel, including the entire block from 5 a.m-1:30 p.m. That 10–12 hours doesn’t even factor in the SportsCenter(s) that run on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and other ESPN channels throughout the day.

In a time where there is more content available than ever before (Social Media, Internet, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), cable networks are constantly striving to keep households from cutting the chord and doing away with cable. To do that, networks are adjusting their programming strategies like never before…. Except ESPN with SportsCenter.

Understand that I’m not calling for ESPN to do away with SportsCenter cold turkey. Simply limit it, for the sole purpose being that it’s outdated. Remember those two inventions I mentioned earlier? They’ve essentially killed the need for highlight shows.

Think about it: SportsCenter was built upon the premise of being the go-to source for scores and highlights. And for nearly thirty years, it succeeded in doing so. But as soon as social media — specifically Twitter — and smartphones became mainstream, highlights and scores were all of a sudden available to the consumer on-demand. There was no longer the need to wait for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter to catch highlights of an earlier game; that info could be found by simply pulling out a phone and scrolling through Twitter. Heck, ESPN’s own ScoreCenter app counterfeits the need to watch SportsCenter as it not only gives consumers scores to games, in some cases, it includes highlights.

The network has taken steps in the last several years to improve SportsCenter; a brand new set, a live element and of course, new faces. But the crux of the show remains the same; provide highlights, scores and analysis to the audience. What they fail to realize, is that their audience has largely already seen scores and highlights and already read/listened to analysis.

So what’s the fix? Simply cut back the amount of air time dedicated to SportsCenter. Keep the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows, but limit the mornings to a 2–3 hour block, maybe 6–8 a.m. Rather than have it running on an endless loop, make it appointment viewing. But don’t sabotage an entire morning’s worth of programming for an outdated form of content. Instead, limit it to a couple of hours and make way for something else….

Move Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” to mornings

The idea to write this actually came while watching SVP’s “solo SportsCenter” one night. Last September, ESPN debuted a new solo SportsCenter hosted by Scott Van Pelt. It aires every weeknight at midnight eastern and features traditional highlights and analysis, but also new, unique segments that up until then, had not been seen on any ESPN programming.

In my opinion, SVP is ESPN’s most valuable talent. That’s not to say he’s the best on-camera (although I happen to think he is), but few people at ESPN or any other sports network can do what he does. Golf coverage? No problem. College basketball? Peanuts. NFL? Cake. It also doesn’t hurt that he has over a million Twitter followers and has one of the most loyal followings of any current ESPN talent.

Which makes it all the more bizarre that ESPN would choose to air his show at a time when their largest market(s), the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic, are largely asleep. Living in Los Angeles, I love that SVP is on at 9 p.m. my time. But from a network standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense.

SVP’s version of SportsCenter is exactly the type of programming that sports networks need to gravitate to — less scores and highlights, and more opinion, debate and interviews.

As mentioned previously, as a consumer, I have more options available to me than ever before. Which means cable networks are under the most pressure they’ve ever been under to keep me, the consumer, interested. It’s why traditional SportsCenter is slowly fading into more and more obscurity. If all you’re showing me are scores and highlights from the previous night, what’s my motivation to keep watching?

What ESPN should do with their weekday morning programming is what other sports networks have done in recent years — ditch the highlight show for simulcasts and debate-style shows. NBC Sports airs The Dan Patrick Show weekday mornings from 9–12 EST, their primetime morning slot. Fox Sports 1 recently started airing The Herd with Colin Cowherd weekday mornings from 9–12 PST, their primetime morning slot. ESPN does air Mike and Mike on ESPN2, but the flagship network is nothing more than SportsCenter on loop.

A move to the mornings would do wonders for both SVP’s show and the network in general. You’re talking about a guy who is revered in the golf, college basketball and football communities. Who’s up-to-date with the latest social trends and perhaps most of all, embraces gambling more so than any show on network television. And while no suits at the company would admit it on the record, I have to believe they would love to steal some viewers from former employees, Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd.

ESPN is on the right track with SVP’s SportsCenter, now they just need to finish the job.

Give Louis Riddick his own show

Last but certainly not least…

Rare is the case where an individual can come in from the outside world of television and transition seamlessly on-camera, but that’s exactly what Louis Riddick has done.

After a six-year NFL career, Riddick spent time as both a scout and Director of Pro Personnel for both the Eagles and Redskins before joining ESPN in September of 2013.

Since then, Riddick has flourished. In addition to his smooth on-camera delivery, he provides insight from different perspectives; that of a player, that of a scout, and that of an analyst — something that few people at ESPN or any other company can do.

And as a consumer, it’s that type of insight I’m looking for. If a network has someone that can break down film from three different perspectives, that’s something that is going to make me keep coming back for more.

For the first time in several years, I opted to watch ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft as opposed to the NFL Network. The reason? ESPN’s decision to bring back Riddick permanently after filling in for Ray Lewis in 2015 when Lewis opted to stay in Baltimore in wake of that spring’s riots.

What I found myself appreciating most about Riddick was his honesty and frankness. Too often do draft analysts laud every pick that comes across the board. Now, to be fair, it’s not as easy of a job as it may seem — especially for analysts who are former players. For many young people, draft night is the best night of their young lives, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. And from an analyst perspective, it may seem callous to criticize a player on what is supposed to be one of, if not the best night of their lives.

But that’s exactly what Riddick did. And continued to do. And the more he did it, the more appreciation I gained for him. All of a sudden I found myself seeking out his opinions, his commentary, his columns and any other type of content his finger prints were on.

Riddick has seen his role at ESPN grow over time. He’s now featured on NFL Insiders: Sunday Edition alongside names such as Trey Wingo and Adam Schefter. But for as much as Riddick’s role has grown, it still feels like he’s being under-utilized.

What I want, is an hour-long, deep-dive into all things NFL hosted by Riddick, in which he breaks down film, offering the different perspectives he can provide and having intimate, one-on-one interviews with various players, scouts and executives throughout the league. Riddick can personally relate to three different professional levels of the NFL, and as a viewer, I find that flexibility fascinating. It’s something unique, and most importantly for ESPN, it’s something that I have to turn on the TV for.

Follow David on Twitter: @_Parksie

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