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Don’t tell Scott Van Pelt that ESPN is dying

Scott Van Pelt wants you to know that things are probably going to be okay at ESPN. (Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

Did you hear the news? ESPN is allegedly dying, whether it be the result of cord-cutting (ESPN’s cable subscriber base fell to around 89.5 million in June, down from 99 million in 2013), or the popping of the so-called media-rights bubble, or the fact that the network laid off somewhere around 300 staffers last fall after cost-cutting demands from parent company Disney, or that a number of big names — Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann, Skip Bayless, Mike Tirico, etc. — have left ESPN in recent months. Every big-picture story about ESPN seems to mention these things, and Scott Van Pelt certainly has noticed from his solo seat on the midnight Eastern edition of “SportsCenter,” a show he’s now hosted for a year.

Such talk perturbs him.

“I look at it this way: [Stories like that are] like a Mad Lib: We’re going to reference cord-cutting, we’re going to reference the names of the high-profile talent who have left, then we’re going to mention that a bunch of people were let go, and then we’re going to mention ratings. … And the picture that it begins to paint is, ‘We’re [in trouble],’ ” Van Pelt said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “And then you see in the third quarter ESPN made $5.9 billion. I would put it this way, the analogy I would make is: Warren Buffet lost $50 million. He’s still a billionaire and he still has more money than the people he’s in common with that it’s not even close. So my push-back and my fatigue with this, and it’s real fatigue — I’m really tired of being painted as some sort of failing, sinking ship.”

Van Pelt said he wishes people would take a big-picture look at things, especially where ESPN stands as compared with competitors such as Fox Sports 1, which has hardly made a dent in the ratings despite hiring a number of boldfaced names away from ESPN in its attempt to emulate the “embrace debate” mantra that has served ESPN well in daytime viewership. Fox Sports also has cut a number of jobs in recent months, and morale at the network is said to be low.

“I understand the direction things are going, and yet the reality is that our competitors let go of a ton of people as well,” Van Pelt said. “We make seven bucks a [subscription], they make a dollar. Our ratings are in the millions and the high hundreds of thousands; they can’t crack six figures. And I just wonder at what point the articles about the death of our company are laid side-by-side with our supposed competitors and you take inventory. Because it isn’t close. It’s not close.”

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He wasn’t done, and mentioned Jamie Horowitz by name. Previously an executive at ESPN, Horowitz has brought his penchant for opinion-driven shows with him to Fox Sports, where he serves as president. Horowitz has gone to great lengths to poke his former employer, most recently erecting billboards touting Skip Bayless’s new FS1 show near ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

“Jamie Horowitz is a guy that’s a friend, and every article he’s quoted in he mentions ‘SportsCenter’s’ failing ratings. And not one says, ‘Well how about [the Cowherd-Whitlock team-up] “Speak for Yourself,” which gets 50,000 people.’ We don’t have a single show that rates that badly. He gets constantly quoted talking about our ratings, and that is an astonishing thing that continues to happen. … At some point, if you’re going to talk [junk] about our ratings, you should be held accountable for yours. They’re not close. And by not close, I mean it’s like Washington to Los Angeles, not Washington to Baltimore. You’re a long, long, long, long flight away.

“I’m competitive. I’m professionally competitive,” Van Pelt continued. “There’s not one person involved in this discussion that I’m not friendly with. Skip Bayless, I don’t know [him]. But Colin, I’m friendly with. [Jason] Whitlock, I’m friendly with. The higher-ups at Fox, I’m friendly with. There’s no anger in any of this, I’m just professionally competitive. And so I can say, ‘Wait, if you’re going to keep saying that,’ then I’m going to say, ‘What are your ratings?’ I saw one day there was 28,000 people watching that show. … That’s the attendance of a Cincinnati Reds game. That’s your audience. ‘SportsCenter,’ on its worst day, gets 300,000 people. But we’re failing. We’re just failing away over here.”

Van Pelt acknowledged that the difficulties facing the network are real, especially as it looks for some way to monetize a so-called “over-the-top” delivery system that would allow viewers to pay for ESPN content alone over the Internet instead of subscribing to a cable bundle. But taken as a whole, things are still going pretty well at the network.

“There are challenges and no one will tell you otherwise,” he said. “I’m amazed at the almost willful exclusion of the fact that we’re still … it’s not like we’re losing money, we’re just not making as much. It’s a giant difference. So I believe there are smart people who are trying to steer the ship around the iceberg.

“No one’s looking around up here and saying, ‘Oh God, I hope we get paid next week.’ That’s not the reality that we’re existing in. We’re still us, and if we were losing everyone and some competitor was closing the gap, then I think you’d look around and say, ‘What do we need to do?’ I don’t know who can show me any evidence of that.”

As for Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter,” he says he’s found the solo-anchor seat to be a good fit, with a number of bits he imported from the ESPN Radio show he formerly hosted translating well to television. The show has been a modest ratings success, as well, especially in the fractured landscape of today’s broadcast-television market. According to the network, Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” has shown double-digit ratings growth over the first eight months of the year and ratings among male viewers in the coveted 18-to-34 market have outperformed those of the late-night talk shows that Van Pelt is running up against.

“I think the approach has been well received: From A to Z the idea that we’re going to take the hour and fill it out in a much different manner than ‘SportsCenter’ typically did,” he said. “When we started a year ago, there was the big question of what that was going to look like, and I didn’t know because I hadn’t done it. As we did it, it very quickly became comfortable. It didn’t feel foreign. I wasn’t trying to learn a new language.”


Van Pelt and I touched on a number of other topics.

On being a father of two young children, including a preschool-age daughter.

“That’s the cool thing, not doing radio, that allows me to scoop her up every day. That moment, when she looks through the glass and sees that I’m there to get her, that smile on her face, it’s the greatest thing in the entire world. I’m available to be around during the day. The way I look at it, by the time that I leave, I’m only missing a few hours that they’re awake anyway.

She knows that she sees me on TV. We were in a gas station getting a lollipop. There’s this one gas station on the way home from preschool, it’s the lollipop store because we get lollipops there, and I walked in and some guy asked me to take a picture. My daughter’s just staring at the guy and when she leaves she’s just staring at the guy, and we get outside and she’s like, ‘Why did that nice man want to take a picture with you?’ I said, ‘Sometimes people get excited to meet Daddy.’ And she’s like, ‘Why?’ ” …

On bits that haven’t worked on “SportsCenter.”

“There’s really only one thing that we did that we did a couple times and then punted on, is this sight gag: In baseball there’s this term for someone who’s struck out four times, it’s called a Golden Sombrero. And so we got this big, idiotic hat, and I wore it. And I looked more idiotic than normal. Well, two things: Number one, dudes strike out a lot, and we realized, ‘Wait, this might be a nightly occurrence.’ A sight gag is funny if it’s sprinkled in very, very judiciously. And secondarily, there was just enough people telling me I was appropriating [Mexican] culture. And I was like: ‘For God’s sake, it’s a hat that’s tied to baseball. This isn’t about Mexican people. It’s a guy who struck out and I’m wearing a hat.’ … But the way the world works now: If we did it too often, it was not a hill I was willing to die on. A.) It wasn’t going to be that funny and B.) If it meant in any way anything other than baseball, it wasn’t worth it. I think we did it twice and it died a very quiet, peaceful death.”

On incorporating sports-gambling talk into the show.

“I think it’s a kind of a topic that went from taboo to being discussed in a way adults talk about things. Because people bet on games. … That resonates in a way that’s almost singular. … And let me be clear: I’m not trying to legitimize it. It’s not my cause celebre. All it is is simply something I know is what people do. Last year, when I did the topic of gambling and daily fantasy sports, and I’m kind of proud, because John Oliver, who I think is brilliant, did the exact same essay probably a month after we did it. And the gist was: Look, daily fantasy is gambling, period, end of story. … My point [when] I did this was, ‘I’m not against this, but being spoken to like I’m not an adult and you’re telling me it’s not something when it plainly is.’ I said I’d be willing to talk about it the way I talk about it and I guess I’m empowered by the fact that it definitely clicks with people. It’s like beer ads during football: Not everybody drinks beer, but a lot of people do. … Gambling, for whatever reason, is treated like this third-rail topic, and I find it silly so I choose to take it head-on. I haven’t had any push-back from anybody.

At the start of last year, they were doing ‘spread alerts’ during the broadcast and it felt icky to people, because it felt forced and it wasn’t organic and it was like, ‘Oh, we decided we’re going to talk about gambling.’ Well I’ve always talked about it on radio, and I talk about it from a place where it’s obvious where I get it.”