Editor’s Note: As SportsCenter approaches its 50,000th episode (expected to be Thursday, Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. ET), Front Row will present content related to the show and the milestone.
ESPN Senior Vice President and Executive Producer Mark Gross joined ESPN in 1988 and has played an integral role in the growth of SportsCenter since. Currently, he oversees the strategic direction for SportsCenter (among other assignments) and he recently addressed some of the most common SportsCenter-related topics and questions with Front Row.
On the SportsCenter mission and definition:
SportsCenter is a sports news and information program that serves sports fans through reporting, highlights and context. It shows the most interesting stories and highlights for the biggest audience and when you get through everything else, the most important thing SportsCenter does is document the day and night in sports just like a game telecast would document a game.
On potentially excessive coverage of select players or teams:
We cover the stories that resonate with the widest number of people. That’s what drives our editorial decisions every single day. We can’t do everything for everybody all at the same time, yet we do try to broaden our coverage when we can to cover teams that may have relatively smaller followings. Ultimately, there is no mistaking what our research and ratings tell us about what we cover. While we are aware of the pockets of feedback about coverage fatigue relative to certain players or teams, those same teams and players have wide appeal.
On repetition of stories throughout multiple shows:
When people comment about the SportsCenter repetition, I completely understand that argument, especially since I watch more SportsCenter than most. What you have to remember though is that the average viewer is watching SportsCenter for limited portions at a time. So what may seem like repetition to those who watch it all, to most it’s primarily new material. Another factor is given our role as a 24-hour sports news source, we are defined in many ways by big sports stories. Sports fans rely on us in those situations more than any other time. It’s similar to how news networks cover election campaigns around the clock or how viewers turn to the Weather Channel for comprehensive coverage of a hurricane. Viewers expect wall-to-wall coverage from every angle; that’s why they tune in, and that’s what networks deliver.
On SportsCenter covering leagues/players/teams that ESPN, Inc. has a business relationship with:
Our mission with SportsCenter, like that for all of ESPN, is how we can best serve sports fans. To do so, there is a church and state structure here — where those on ESPN’s programming team are dealing with the leagues, conferences and commissioners on business matters and rights discussions, and down the hill here in Building Four, all of us with SportsCenter are focused on covering the news about those leagues each day. Fans have a tremendous attachment to SportsCenter because sports is their passion and we’ve built a trust over more than three decades and 50,000 shows.
On how decisions are made on what highlights to show:
We make decisions every day for highlights that we think most fans will want to see and will stick around for. For example, with the NHL, we don’t devote the same amount of time to cover that, the way we do the NFL, college football, NBA or MLB. That’s purely based on fan engagement and research. With that said, the way the show is structured, if it’s the NHL, WNBA, X Games or Tour de France and there are compelling story lines or plays, they should and do have a home on SportsCenter.
On SportsCenter’s impact on the “highlight culture”:
SportsCenter is not in the business of regulating behavior by athletes and coaches in the world of sports. When it’s all said and done, we are about documenting the day in sports. It’s very fundamental to us. We are putting on things that we think sports fans want to see. If fans want to watch a touchdown celebration or an amazing play, we will show it within the game highlight package or elsewhere like the “Top 10 plays.”
On the most important factor in SportsCenter’s continued success:
The people who work on the show are extremely passionate about sports and passionate about the product they produce. They are our competitive advantage. They are producing their favorite show. In other words, if they weren’t working here they would be watching SportsCenter because they are huge sports fans.
On anchor style and substance:
We want SportsCenter anchors to share their personality on the air. We are not trying to have them be someone they are not. It’s perfectly okay for them to show their personality as long as it doesn’t prevent them from presenting the information. They need to find the balance and most often they do.
On the process of story crediting:
The number one priority obviously is to make sure stories on SportsCenter are accurate and we take that responsibility seriously. We have an extensive system in place to credit other entities when it’s their story and we do that often every single day — from newspapers to magazines to websites to blogs and beyond. Often times reporters from multiple outlets are working with the same sources and pursuing the same stories. We are not looking to steal deserved credit from other outlets. We are merely seeking to ensure that the information delivered on SportsCenter is accurate since we are properly held accountable for all the content on our shows.
On covering athletes that appear in “This is SportsCenter” commercials:
We recognize it’s a slippery slope, yet ultimately believe the athletes get it. While they know that these are fun commercials and it’s a great campaign to be a part of, at the same time, if they do something wrong – or great for that matter—they know SportsCenter is going to cover it aggressively. We have a responsibility to the people at home who are watching the show and we take that very seriously.
On how the show compares to SportsCenter 15-20 years ago:
I’ve been around SportsCenter a long time and can confidently say it’s a better show now. That’s not a knock on the shows of the past. Those shows were great – they were entertaining and fun. There is simply more technology and more resources now and we have various personalities that bring a much deeper perspective to the overall SportsCenter experience. Also, we provide more context, insight and personality in our highlights despite the fact that sports highlights in general are more widely available now.
On a few SportsCenter memories that stand out:
The Olympic bombing in Atlanta (1996) was a significant moment in the world of sports and for SportsCenter. I was also here in the control the night Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear (1997). As far as people are concerned, there are two things that stand out and both are difficult memories from the 1990s: the death of long-time anchor Tom Mees (1996) and the passing of one of the original SportsCenter directors Denis Sedory (1997). I can still remember the shot we did of the control room the day Denis passed away, showing an empty chair. We miss those guys and like many others since them, their commitment to SportsCenter is what continues to make the show great.