ESPN’s evolving “SportsCenter” brand, the network said this week, is expanding its “emphasis on personality-driven programs.” This is a development years in the making, from the launch of Scott Van Pelt’s midnight program in 2015 to the more recent launch of “SC6″ with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, and one that makes intuitive sense.
Everyone’s already seen the highlights on their phones or tablets or TV screens, the thinking goes. To keep “SportsCenter” relevant, viewers have to be offered something else: a compelling narrator, a recognizable face, that strong personality.
And so ask Sage Steele about her pending move back to Bristol, Conn., where she’ll host a relaunched “SportsCenter: AM”, and she’ll mention that popular P word: “What I’ve always liked about morning TV is that it’s personality-driven,” she said in a phone conversation this week.
“However,” she continued, “and this is a big however — I’m am an old-school sportscaster. I love highlights. I love breakdowns and then conversations afterward, but really focusing kind of on what ‘SportsCenter’ was back in the day, which was really getting into the highlights, and the story of the games and the competitions. And then having really good analysis to break it down, and people who can have a conversation about it afterward. But I’m kind of old-school with that, and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing again.”
Highlights? Old-school? Isn’t the thought that traditional highlight shows are under a merciless Internet-and-social-media attack, and that old-school highlight shows have lost their appeal?
“Nothing will ever go back to being how it used to be, but I think there’s a middle ground here,” she said. “People I talk to want more of that. It depends on the demographic, right, on which research you’re reading. And so I just think there’s a happy medium there, a middle ground.”
Steele’s new “SportsCenter: AM” show — which in a change will air on ESPN2, and will run 7-10 a.m. Monday through Thursday — is expected to debut this fall, in the run-up to the 2017 NFL season. It’s part of a revamped ESPN daytime lineup, which will feature a Mike Greenberg show in the morning, followed by “First Take” and then a live show with Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre.
Steele sometimes talks with the enthusiasm and pace of a 1.5-speed podcast, which helps explain why she always thought her personality would mesh well with morning programming. She used words like “passionate” and “hyperactive” when describing herself, and said her approach — positive and genuine and glass-half-full — should play well with pre-breakfast audiences.
And Steele — who spent the past few years in Arizona, hosting “NBA Countdown” and leading the network’s “SportsCenter on the Road” coverage — isn’t ready to give up on the appeal of well-presented and analyzed sports highlights. Her three-hour show, she said, will offer a chance to present the same events in multiple ways, from the traditional to the more modern.
“We have a lot to figure out in the next couple of months, but I think it’ll be a combination,” she said. “And I think that’s healthy, because you can’t just say that this is the way. That means you’re probably ignoring half the country, no matter what your topic is: sports, politics, news, right? I think we get so set on saying this is the best way to do it, and my question is, says who? We have to listen to more than just one group.”
Which sort of takes us to a few large elephants stalking the room. You’ll recall that ESPN has come under some bit of scrutiny for a supposed left-leaning bias, a perception some commentators have fixated on when discussing the network’s stature. You’ll also recall that Steele has been at the center of a couple of social-media flaps in recent months, involving NFL anthem protests and airport immigration protests, which in turn led to speculation that her departure from “NBA Countdown” foretold a departure from the network.
That prompted a public display of support from ESPN President John Skipper — “Sage definitively has a bright and long-term future at ESPN and my complete support,” he said. Meanwhile, her name became a sort of code word in ESPN arguments, with a critic suggesting she move to Fox News, with the Daily Beast calling her “a right-wing favorite,” and with Clay Travis describing her as “a prominent conservative voice.” She faced a rather ferocious social-media backlash, making it natural to wonder whether she’ll be reluctant to blast her full personality into this new show.
“I mean, honestly, one of the many beautiful things about being in your mid-40s is you just don’t care anymore,” she said. “I don’t care. Along with gray hair and all the other awesomeness about aging, I am just so comfortable in my own skin. And it took years to get to this point. So no, I’m good. If anything it has motivated me to continue to be me, and I feel blessed that I just have the right family and friends around me to encourage me to still be me.”
“And that’s where it comes from, is how I was raised, and the relationships that I have with my parents and my family,” she went on. “Because I know that that’s much more important than the opinion of some person on Twitter. I mean, really, is that what you’re going to spend your life doing is criticizing me or telling me what a sellout I am? That’s fine. It’s really okay. And guess what, most importantly for this conversation, ESPN think it’s okay, or else I wouldn’t still be here. And I’m here for the long-term now. So I’m comfortable being me. And I will never intentionally stir the pot, but I will not ignore things either that come my way.”
And so do people know her politics? Should they know her politics? Should they care about her politics?
“The funny thing is, not one person has asked,” she said. “Not any writer. Nobody has asked. I wouldn’t answer, anyway, because it’s no one’s business. And what people have done — and that includes writers, people with impressive credentials, people who are allegedly well-rounded and good journalists — is make assumptions based on a couple comments or social media posts. Because never once have I said anything about politics. … I’ve gotten nothing but support from my bosses at ESPN, but not one person has ever actually come to the source and asked. Not that they’d get an answer, but I think it’s fascinating.”
So if I were to ask her politics now?
“It has nothing to do with me being a sportscaster,” she said.
And it probably doesn’t have much to do with her new duties, although viewers will no doubt be searching for clues. In any case, Steele will continue her role with “SportsCenter’s” traveling coverage, hosting at remote events such as Super Bowls, the Masters and the NBA Finals. She also asked to continue her role hosting the show’s Veteran Day’s coverage, something she’s often talked about as an Army brat.
She said the only hard part about the new gig is leaving the West Coast, but she said the idea of again anchoring a studio highlight show has given her “ just kind of a permanent grin on my face right now, because I’ve missed it, to be honest with you.
“I’m really better at this point in my life, despite some crazy times, than I’ve ever been before. Who knew? I mean, I started off as this crazy shy kid, this crazy shy kid. My parents were like ‘Yeah, good luck with this broadcasting thing, you have to talk if you want to be on TV. And then I started talking, and I started talking too fast. So who knew I would ever end up here? I didn’t. I didn’t. So at this point, it’s all gravy.”