Bill Simmons’ pending departure from ESPN generated considerable fireworks. However, the man who hired him and numerous people who became big names at the network, John Walsh, retired without much fanfare in February. Few people had more impact on ESPN than Walsh.
So I was pleased to see James Andrew Miller’s terrific piece on Walsh for Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.
From the start, Walsh saw “SportsCenter” as not just a 30-minute daily “results” show but as the gateway to all future roads for ESPN. During his consultancy he wrote extensive memos about his plans for fixing “SC” to Bornstein and to then-president Roger Werner. Although Walsh arrived at ESPN fully schooled in journalism (holding an English degree from the University of Scranton and a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri), Bornstein could see that if Walsh was going to create a new era for “SportsCenter,” he’d have to learn a lot more about television than he knew. So Bornstein joined Walsh at the hip with director of production Steve Anderson, the two quickly becoming best friends and staying that way through the present day, working together on new ideas and innovations to make “SportsCenter” the jewel in ESPN’s crown.
For six months in 1988, Walsh interviewed ESPN personnel, followed by a year of experimenting with the “SportsCenter” format: making changes, changing the changes, then sometimes changing them back again.
Guided partly by his own sharp instincts as a fan, Walsh realized that he had always felt cheated by the perfunctory way local TV stations reported sports on their 11 p.m. newscasts. He decided that “SportsCenter,” as ESPN’s flagship show, should represent a huge improvement. He saw the revamped show as a virtual gathering place where sports fans could “assemble” every night, not just to hang out but to learn something. He did it with better reporting, deeper coverage and a ton more highlights.
Fine-tuning “SportsCenter” to the smallest detail, Walsh reimagined every aspect of the show and imposed high standards and practices where sloppy had frequently ruled. Editorial meetings became a powerful force. He instituted the then-bold notion that the beginning of “SportsCenter” should look like the front page of a sports section, with a multitude of sports up top rather than just plodding doggedly down the line from sport to sport. Walsh and Anderson established talent and production teams that worked together to deliver consistency, and Walsh brought on more reporters to do features and news, along with expert analysts like Peter Gammons for baseball, thus bringing additional value aboard.