The incredible shrinking local TV sportscast just claimed another victim.
Brett Haber, the multi-Emmy-winning sports anchor for WUSA (Channel 9), said Monday that he is resigning from the station after seven years, becoming the second high-profile sportscaster to flee local news in the past six weeks.
In June, Lindsay Czarniak, the co-sports anchor at WRC (Channel 4), said she would be leaving her station and its top-rated newscast to join ESPN.
Both departures have a common thread: Local stations across the country have been cutting back on the amount of time devoted to sports and changing the nature of the stories they cover as well.
Broadcast stations have been in retreat for years in the face of intense competition from the likes of all-sports cable channels, such as ESPN and Comcast SportsNet, and Internet sites that provide round-the-clock access to sports news. This has siphoned away hard-core fans from sportscasts at 5, 6 and 11 p.m., leaving stations with viewers who have only a marginal interest in sports.
Stations have responded by cutting back sharply on sports segments, in some cases slashing the airtime by half as compared to a decade or more ago.
Local stations have concluded that “it’s fruitless to try to compete with networks and Web sites that are devoted to sports all the time,” said Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. He is among a number of observers who predict that stations around the country will drop sports news altogether within five to 10 years.
Haber, who has been WUSA’s sports director since 2004 and was the lead sportscaster on WTTG (Channel 5) from 1997 to 2000, sees something similar ahead.
“Is local [TV] sports changing?” he asked rhetorically in an interview Monday. “There’s no question about it. Sports is just not as relevant [to local newscasts] as it once was. If you asked me will my job exist as currently constituted 10 to 20 years down the line, I would say probably not. One thing I do know is that live sporting events will exist, and there will always be announcers for those events.”
As such, Haber said, he intends to specialize in live sportscasting and has several prospects, although he did not disclose his immediate plans. He has been an announcer for the Tennis Channel, Fox Sports Net and TNT, among other networks. He is a play-by-play announcer for the Tennis Channel’s coverage of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington this week.
In addition to cutting the amount of time spent on sports, broadcast stations across the country have increased the amount of coverage of local teams, on human-interest stories and on “lifestyle” sports, such as running and biking, said Marie Hardin, associate director for research at the Curley Center. This reflects the interests of more casual sports fans and the older, generally female viewers who watch local news, she said.
Haber said resigning from the station will give him more time to spend with his family, including his sons, ages 4 and 8. “I’m not the father I want to be,” he said. “This is a chance to be a dad.”
The station has not announced Haber’s replacement. Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA, said he expected Haber to remain on the job for four to eight weeks.
Horlick called Haber “tremendously talented” but did not try to persuade him to stay. “I said, ‘I won’t spend anytime at all talking you out of it because I see how important this is to you, and it’s your conviction.’ ”
Haber has won the Emmy for best sports anchor in the regional awards competition for five consecutive years, most recently in June.