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#TBT: “It felt like we were serving up a delicious slice of Americana to those who had never heard of this particular flavor”

Recalling the 2005 SportsCenter's "50 States In 50 Days" tour across America

It was the summer of 2005. There were long, hot days and aside from MLB, golf, and tennis, little in the way of live sports.

To help fill the void, SportsCenter embarked on a most ambitious project, a summer road trip hitting all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) to spotlight a sporting event unique to that state.

As EVP, Event and Studio Production & Executive Editor, Norby Williamson, said at the time: “This is a phenomenal opportunity for ESPN to touch our viewers, to personally meet the fans who watch us every day. Along the way, we will educate our viewers about the varied sporting events popular throughout the country, and point out the well-known, and perhaps not-so-well-known, athletes and events from each state.”

(Kimberly Jarvis/ESPN Images)

Each “SportsCenter Across America” segment originated from a mobile SportsCenter set with an anchor and a live audience at a sporting event germane to the state. These daily segments included event action, historical notes, factoids, and vignettes about each state’s contribution to the national sports scene, as well as “Best” lists compiled from ESPN research and voters, and several long-form features.

The adventure started in Massachusetts at Fenway Park for a New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox game, co-hosted by Chris Berman and the late Stuart Scott. Fifty days later, the odyssey concluded at our nation’s capital.

In between, with five separate dedicated production units SportsCenter visited such varied events as the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho; Alaska’s World Indian-Eskimo Olympics in Fairbanks (see anchor Steve Levy’s sidebar below); the Swan American Regatta in Newport, R.I.; windsurfing in Oregon; skydiving in Montana; Freestyle Frisbee in Seattle; the National Darts Championship in Las Vegas; Hawaiian Canoe Racing in Maui; the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota (see anchor Kenny Mayne participating in the gallery above); the Elvis 5K Road Race in Memphis, a pie-eating contest in Maine and a prison rodeo in Oklahoma.

All this travel was set to the accompaniment of “Open Road,” a single from rock star Bryan Adams’ then-new CD, heard during montages, promos, and entering and cutting from each segment

At the time, ESPN Music Director Kevin Wilson – then senior music coordinator – said: “I knew we were looking for a song that fit thematically with 50*50 . . . and when I played [‘Open Road’], I thought it was absolutely perfect — the lyrics were exactly what traveling around the country is about, of cities and people and uncovering untold stories which are exactly what SportsCenter wants to capture. When I played a few songs in a meeting, ‘Open Road’ was the one everyone fell in love with.”


July 21, 2005: Steve Levy reports from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska. (ESPN Images)

Even 15 years after “SportsCenter Across America,” one memory stands out in SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy’s mind.

“There is no doubt which is the unique sporting event I’ve covered during my 28 years at ESPN … Alaska’s World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. I had no idea what to expect as I walked in the doors of the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks. The athletes, organizers, and fans in the stands were just so proud to share their traditions and traditional Inuit games. “

One sport, in particular, stood out for Levy: “The Ear Pull. Yup, you got it . . . as advertised. It’s a test of one’s ability to endure pain. Two competitors sit facing each other, their legs straddled and interlocked. A two-foot-long loop of string is looped behind their ears, so it’s like ‘a tug of war’ and ends when the cord comes free from an ear or someone quits. Just imagine the sports talk radio material!

“I was fortunate to cover four of the 50 states that summer – darts in Las Vegas, hot air balloons in Wyoming, the Cal Ripken Baseball Tournament in North Dakota and Alaska. At each stop, people were so happy to see the ESPN logo. That SportsCenter came to them, that we recognized how big these events were locally even if they weren’t nationally, seemed to mean a great deal to everyone in attendance.

“Smiles were big, handshakes – remember them? – were heartfelt. It felt like we were serving up a delicious slice of Americana to those who had never heard of this particular flavor. I learned a lot during those trips. It was a great reminder of how diverse our audience is and how definitions can differ over what many perceive to be ‘big-time sports.”

– Dave Nagle

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