Scott Van Pelt closed an episode of “SportsCenter” last month with a two-minute monologue about the 31st anniversary of his father’s death. Strengthened by two friends who had recently lost their parents, Van Pelt spoke passionately about running from grief, and encouraged everyone to do the opposite — to articulate their pain so they could overcome it.
The segment went viral. It embodied the essential traits of Van Pelt’s version of ESPN’s flagship show — sensitivity, nuance and the courage to be vulnerable — that help him connect with viewers.
“It’s a great reminder of the power of the microphone we hold in our hands,” Van Pelt said.
But that power is changing — disappearing, even — as television viewing habits change and sports media develop new ways to bring fans what they want when they want it. (Now!) That means what was once a premier placement in TV sports — the anchor desk — is not the high perch it used to be. It is not clear anymore what it is at all.
Not so long ago, sports fans operated on a schedule dictated by the programming that was available on TV. The sports highlight show, “SportsCenter” being the most popular one, was appointment viewing.
It was where sports fans went to see the highlights they could only read about in the newspaper. People came to know its anchors: Keith Olbermann, Linda Cohn, Stuart Scott, Robin Roberts, Dan Patrick, to name a few. They complemented the sports clips with their own personalities and, in the case of Scott, redefined the highlight show genre.
But today, highlights flood fans’ Twitter timelines immediately: a buzzer beater on loop seconds after it drops through the net; a touchdown from multiple angles before referees have ruled it good. They flood our Instagram feeds thanks to users like House of Highlights, which delivers the day’s most important sports highlights to more than 12 million followers.
“SportsCenter,” even with six editions each weekday, can no longer dangle the carrot of providing clips unavailable anywhere else. On most nights, when the highlight package rolls, Van Pelt is telling a majority of the viewers about something they have already seen.
“Every person covering sports is trying to figure out the riddle,” Van Pelt said. He asked how a program could deliver highlights “to you in a way that you will want it and convince yourself that you will need it.”
Omar Raja, 24, is the founder of House of Highlights. He grew up watching sports highlights on the local news with his father every morning. When Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, he did not find out about it until he turned on his TV the next morning.
“It’s crazy to think 10 years ago, we had to wait until the next day to find out what happened the night before,” Raja said.
Raja’s team can now offer instant access to what everyone is talking about. But Raja thinks traditional and new-age highlights delivery systems can coexist. He still watches “SportsCenter,” after all, especially Van Pelt’s midnight edition.
“I don’t really listen to him for the highlights,” Raja said. “I just listen to him for his thoughts on things. He’s a good personality, and he’s charismatic.”
When Van Pelt took over as anchor in 2015, he said, he decided to lean on his personality and trust the audience to connect with his curiosity about sports.
Per ESPN, Van Pelt has consistently generated higher ratings among 18-to 34-year-old men in his midnight time slot than late-night talk shows on broadcast or cable. Other sports anchors have tried a similar approach, to lesser degrees of success.
Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole’s show on Fox Sports went through several iterations before pivoting toward a late-night show format; it was canceled in 2017. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith were chosen to overhaul the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter,” but the reformatted show — called “SC6” or “The Six” — lasted a little more than a year before it was broken up in 2018. During its run, Hill was criticized for a post to her personal Twitter account about President Trump, and for another about the N.F.L., for which ESPN suspended her.
“To ignore the racial component and the climate that they faced would be completely dishonest,” Van Pelt said of Hill and Smith, who are African-American. “They faced challenges that I didn’t face. They also didn’t have the benefits that I have.”
Those benefits include a midnight slot that allows Van Pelt to experiment in front of a smaller potential audience, and stronger lead-ins from “Monday Night Football” during the N.F.L. season.
Onrait, who now hosts “Jay and Dan” on TSN in Canada at midnight, has adopted the sensibilities of a late-night talk-show host in this turn as a sports anchor.
“Personality is what’s going to rule the next phase of television,” Onrait said.
Others, such as Skip Bayless of Fox Sports, combine so-called “hot takes” with continuous criticism of high-profile athletes like LeBron James to connect with viewers.
“The only thing that really worked at Fox was Skip,” Onrait said. “Nothing was working until Skip showed up. No one got ratings. I know lots of people have made a living out of crapping on the guy, but what he did was bring actual viewers to the network. He was the only one who did that.”
In a statement to The New York Times, Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive who oversees “SportsCenter,” pushed back against the idea that the show is becoming obsolete.
“We recognize that people have many options for viewing highlights now, but we continue to develop presentations that you’re not going to see anywhere else,” Williamson said. “We’ll show you what happened but also how it happened and why.”
While ESPN still sees its network and the “SportsCenter” franchise as vital to the fan’s experience, what really matters is whether viewers will continue to see it this way.
Van Pelt knows that reckoning is coming soon.
“I keep thinking to myself this is a short window,” Van Pelt said. “It won’t go on forever.”