Sports on local TV news, once the source for scores and more, look for an identity in a digital world

As ESPN grew into a national treasure after its birth in 1979, the critical role that local television news played to provide sports news and highlights, suffered badly. If ESPN and its ongoing SportsCenters weren’t a strong enough threat in the 90s, the internet and later digital devices, replete with immediacies of anything and everything sports, rendered local news stations as secondary sources at best.

Before the developments of the last thirty plus years slowly muted the powerful voices of local sports anchors, markets had icons. Some survived. In its heyday, 11 O’clock to New York sports fans meant either Warner Wolf, Len Berman, Marv Albert, Sal Marchiano or a few others. In Los Angeles, two longtime names, Jim Hill and Fred Roggin are still quite visible.

The dedicated vertical networks of the four major sports, (MLBN, NHLN, NBAN and NFLN), social media, and subscription streaming services (e.g. pump out highlights and stories in depth as they occur. By the time they reach nightly news, people have already seen them, not once but many times.

Most local stations have cut back the time allotted to sports on the news. Yet there’s still some demand and sports segments in the local news are still scheduled. Many local stations also run long-form summary sports programs on weekends. These shows include profiles, local interviews and heartwarming features not found elsewhere.

In 2008, Baltimore sportscaster Scott Garceau put it into perspective after he was let go as a sports anchor at WMAR-TV in Baltimore, when the station cut its sports department: “With Channel 2 kind of out of the sports biz, and you say other people are cutting back, maybe this says a little bit about our sports community, too, that we’re not a sports town like some other places.” He told the Baltimore Sun, “I’m not sure in Boston, if they could do this with what the Celtics and Bruins and the Red Sox and the Patriots mean to people up there. We’ve almost been reduced to a one sports town. I still think it’s a good baseball town, but the Orioles haven’t given us anything in 14 years and maybe that allows the stations to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to do sports at 11 o’clock.'”

Garceau’s career was hardly stymied after leaving WMAR-TV. He’s now part of the Orioles telecasts.

How do producers and anchors manage their reduced time slots for sports? We reached out to a representative group to see how they’ve adapted. 

We asked them to spell out their current missions and how they remain relevant in the day of the Smartphone.

Bruce Beck (Anchor, WNBC New York – 23 years)

The time allotted to sports has always varied, depending on the news of the day. What is unique is the fact that sports bridges news in so many areas, particularly in New York and especially during the period of Covid-19. During this time, our WNBC news leadership has asked that I appear in a multitude of newscasts including the 4 pm and 5 pm shows, in addition to the standard 6 pm and 11 pm newscasts. During these shows, I’ve detailed how the world of sports and athletes, owners and so many more, played a leading role in the response and recovery. 

My exclusive interview with Bob Kraft was a big headline. He donated 300,000 masks to New York City. My visit to the home of 95 year old Hall of Fame basketball coach, Lou Carnesecca, a St.John’s University legend, was prominently featured in many of our shows. 

With the recent protests involving social and racial inequality, our sportscast became an important part of the conversation. It’s been a privilege to offer intriguing stories during these unprecedented times. That said, I never think it’s about how much time I have. I think it’s about what I can do with the time allocated and it’s about presenting sports in the most meaningful and dynamic fashion possible. 

For me, it’s always about being the local guy; local teams, local themes and local stories. With nine professional teams in the four major sports plus two MLS teams, one WNBA team, horse racing and some of the greatest college and high school athletes in the country, there is never a shortage of local material. Throw in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, the Belmont Stakes and the U.S. Open Golf Championship which is at Winged Foot this year, the New York sports marketplace is always loaded. I believe in covering our local teams with passion and investing in them. By that, it’s connecting to athletes, building relationships and finding stories that resonate with our viewers. Covering promotional events and charity events often allow me to present a different side of an athlete which our viewers respond to in a positive way. 

The principles of covering local news have never changed. It’s about finding stories, out-hustling your competition and presenting compelling content that make your loyal viewers want to come back for more. 

Local news has never been more vital and makes a huge difference in people’s lives. That’s being confirmed during our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. I have worked for WNBC-TV for 23 years and every day I am excited to get out there, find the story and tell it to our audience. I am grateful for the opportunity to represent this iconic station. 

Dale Hansen(Anchor, WFAA,  Dallas – 37 years)

When I started at WFAA in 1983, we did 2:30 at 5 p.m., 4:00 at 6 p.m., 4:45 at 10 p.m. Now we do none at 5 p.m. unless there’s a big story, 3:00 at 6 p.m. and 3:30 at 10 p.m. We only do the 3:00 during a rating book! And that’s if we don’t get cut on time which we do about 25-30 percent of the week. Since 2000, we’ve eliminated the 5 p.m. sports and the times had already been reduced as mentioned. But I do need to mention at least that at our station, times dedicated to sports vary. We do less if we have less and 99 percent of the time that we need more time, we get more time. The numbers are simply a starting point and we adjust from there.

We do almost ONLY local sports. I very seldom show highlights from around the country unless it’s a major event. We do cover NASCAR and golf on the weekends, but unless it’s a big story with local implications the vast majority of our sportscast is local. We do a lot of high school and local college stories. That’s how it stays relevant. Covering the people in our area and the stories they care about.

Bernie Smilovitz  (Anchor, WDIV ,Detroit – 34 years)

 In the last 20 years the time allocated to sports has remained the same. 

I learned long ago that research for a local newscast showed a tiny portion of the audience was there for sports. So I’ve always felt we had to make sure sports fans were taken care of as well as those who were there for just news. So the product must appeal to all, sports fans and non-sports fans. There are highlights and there are off-beat stories. There’s entertainment and there’s serious sports news. 

Steve Raible (Anchor, KIRO Seattle – 27 years -just retired)

Time dedicated to sports has not only been reduced at many stations like mine, it was eliminated altogether.

I started in the business in 1982 after retiring from the Seahawks and part of my job was as a sports anchor and reporter. We usually got four to five minutes during the main newscasts, sometimes longer if we had live interviews. 

I moved to the news anchor position in 1993 and watched sports time decrease until the early 2000s when it was eliminated during weekdays. Our sports guy on weekends reported hard news three days a week. In the last year we have returned to doing sports at least five of the seven days, one minute and forty-five second to two minutes in length. 

Today, weekend sports are still being driven by highlights. But during the week our viewers are much more interested in relevant stories on the athletes, the teams and their relationship with the community. 

Mick Shaffer(Sports Director, KSHB Kansas City- 3 years)

Over the last couple of decades, sportscasts have shrunk as far as time allotted goes. It depends on the shop and it depends on the market. Ironically, there’s usually more time for markets where there’s less sports. In other words, smaller markets get longer sportscasts. This is due to smaller markets having smaller news staffs to fill time. So, a lot of time, if you’re a high school kid in say Topeka, you’ll get a lot more coverage than high school kids in Kansas City because here we devote so much time to Chiefs, Royals, Sporting KC and colleges. I would say 20 years ago, sportscasts in Kansas City were probably four to five minutes each night at 10 p.m. Right now, I get two minutes and forty five seconds and one minute and forty five seconds at 6 p.m. However, most days I appear in our 4 p.m., 5 .p.m, 6:30 p.m. and the morning shows. So when it’s all said and done I do a lot more than four to five minutes every day.

I don’t try to compete with ESPN because I can’t compete with ESPN.

Thus, I don’t do national sports unless I can make it local. There’s no NBA team in Kansas City so I don’t devote any of my precious time to the NBA. I won’t even show NBA Finals highlights. If you want those, go to ESPN. They’ll devote half an hour to them. But what you won’t find on ESPN are extended Royals highlights, reaction from the Chiefs during a mini-camp, local college news and the like. We have a national NBC feed. I honestly haven’t pulled down anything from it for months before COVID-19. That changed things obviously. As far as content goes, I value highlights over everything else. Local highlights of course, but I love highlights. I think that’s the most interesting aspect of a sportscast. It is to me, at least. And it’s the best opportunity to be creative in your storytelling and writing and to bring the most energy.

Jim Crandell(Sports Director, Fox 40, Sacramento – 36 years)

I have been hearing for  years that ESPN would be the death of sports reports in local TV newscasts. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it ever will.

Here’s one reason. If Kings fans want to see highlights of a Kings-Lakers game, they can turn to ESPN, and get maybe thirty to forty five seconds of mostly Lakers hoops. However, when they tune into my segment they’ll see at least a minute of highlights that’s heavy on Kings hoops. Plus, I almost always have at least one post-game bite from the Kings. Also, please let me know when ESPN runs a story on a Sacramento swimmer with a shot at the Olympics, or CSU-Sacramento football. Understandably, ESPN has no interest in market specific stories like those, but I do, and we cover them. 

Certainly, ESPN has had an impact on local sportscasts, in some markets more than others. In our late newscast at 10 p.m., the sports segment which runs at 10:50 p.m. is designated for four minutes and thirty seconds. That amount of time is negotiable. Sometimes if there’s not much going on, I give time back to news. There are also nights when I ask for and get more. I know that is not the norm these days in the TV biz, but it is the case here. This station recognizes the value of a local sports segment. I do hits in three different newscasts during the day.

We cover the Kings, Giants, A’s and 49ers…and we have covered the Raiders pretty heavily too, although I’m not sure how to handle them now that the team has moved to Las Vegas. 

It’s important to me that my segments always have at least one “crossover” story, in terms of subject matter, or how I present the story. I try to include in every show a story that will have broad appeal, something non-sports fans will notice. 

John Telich (Anchor, WJW, Fox 8, Cleveland – 40 years)

Time has dropped through the years, but sports stories of wide appeal have been played “up” in the news broadcast format depending on the significance of the story. This means many days I am doing a sports related story high in the new shows which run at 4, 5, 6, and 7 p.m. I also do the traditional sportscast on the 6 p.m. news. Years ago I would do five minutes in both the 6 and 11 p.m. thirty- minute news programs. 

We try to keep the content as local as possible but also keep the focus on sports stories that have wide appeal that would be also consumed by the “non” sports fan.

Jeff Schneider (Executive Sports Producer, KPNX Phoenix)

Twenty years ago, local sports used to be about scores and highlights and would get between three to four minutes of air time depending on the night. That has changed somewhat across some markets. In my travels to some of the larger markets, I still see sportscasts give scores and highlights but the time is usually less than three minutes. Here in Phoenix, our time starts at two minutes and thirty seconds and goes up or down depending on the day. It goes down more than it goes up. With the advent of digital and social media, the theory is people have seen the highlights of their local teams before the local news begins. Not sure I buy that for our total audience, but that is the belief.

The way to keep sports relevant is to focus on stories that have local appeal. We do a lot of feature stories and fewer scores and highlights. People like to see a local high school kid break a record, prepare to get recruited or do well as a professional.  What are people talking about on social media? The other thing to note is where sports are placed within the show. It’s usually at the end. It’s our job to find a reason fans and non-fans would have a reason to continue to watch it.

Pat O’Keefe (Sports Director, News 12 Brooklyn – 13 years) 

In 2007, when I started working at News 12, we had three minutes and thirty seconds allotted for sports  in each newscast, with the ability to go around four minutes on busy Friday nights and weekends. Now, barring a sports story that crosses over into news, our nightly sportscasts are two minutes.

Our biggest focus is on telling unique sports/themed stories that are of interest to both sports fans as well as those who aren’t necessarily interested in the highlights. Fortunately, the world of sports provides so many opportunities to tell interesting human interest stories of athletes, coaches and teams (i.e. underdog stories, overcoming adversity, greatness/dominance, etc.). In addition, at News 12, we continue to dedicate some of our coverage to highlights of local high school and college sports in New York City. There remains significant interest in that coverage, and as the only television station in the nation’s largest market that dedicates time to covering these levels of sports, they are still an important part of our coverage. 

TJ Mathewson

TJ Mathewson is a graduate of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He is a native of Seattle, Washington and called ASU play-by-play for the student radio station and continues to write about sports and sports broadcasting for a number of platforms.

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