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ESPN’s ‘SportsCenter’ Hits the Road Because ‘It’s Not Really 90 Percent News Anymore’

The network is making the flagship show ”more fun“ by bringing its talent to the fans, SVP Rob King and anchor Jonathan Coachman tell TheWrap

ESPN’s “SportsCenter” debuted in-studio along with the cable channel itself on Sept. 7, 1979. Thirty-five years later, the flagship show is hitting the road with a renewed enthusiasm and regularity.

But don’t call the recent internal push to do the news on location more often “eventizing” — the word made up by former Fox chief Kevin Reilly — said Rob King, senior vice president for “SportsCenter” and ESPN’s news division.

“I don’t think it’s about ‘eventizing’ because our world is slightly different than the broader news media world in that sports lives on a calendar,” King told TheWrap. “So we can look out months and months in advance and say, ‘This is going to mean something to fans.'”

Instead, King — who took over the show in January — sees the push as the next natural progression for a big tent show that made an effort to do more live episodes several years ago.

In the past, “SportsCenter” would only travel for a handful of major sporting events: the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Finals and the World Series, plus Final Four and College Football title games. Recently, the show visited San Antonio for the NBA champion Spurs to open its season, it was in Cleveland to welcome LeBron James back to the Cavaliers.

“SportsCenter” has traveled to Florida State University, Ole Miss and Mississippi State for their respective college football games, and will also have a big presence for the upcoming NASCAR final race at Homestead in Miami, Florida.

But the next live “Big Show” push that King is excited for will take place during ESPN’s recognition of Tuesday’s Veterans Day — and its sixth annual “America’s Heroes” initiative — which will include live, day-long “SportsCenter” coverage from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Throughout the week, other shows will be on location at additional military bases, during which the cable channel will feature interviews with and share the stories of current and former military members.

In addition to the Veterans Day honoring, King is most looking forward to his robust slate of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day live shoots — with half a dozen big games happening, “SportsCenter” is going to try to be in all six areas at once, he said, explaining his strategy.

While “SportsCenter” has been using its digital traffic and social feeds to predict where fan attention is going to be in the future, a different technology has really paved the way for the traveling circus. Ironically, the 194,000 square ft new “SportsCenter” studio has been a catalyst for taking the show on the road, King said, in that it is advanced enough to handle the high-tech remote shoots and feeds required.

The pristine, expansive — and yes, expensive — Digital Center 2 had one noticeable drawback: It lacked a human connection, King said, something that can be applied in general to ESPN’s campus, which is somewhat isolated in Bristol, Connecticut.

Citing the importance of a fan connection in the Twitter age, King and his team wanted “SportsCenter” to be seen as “more fun,” so he is literally bringing the show and its talent to the fans. But still, ESPN’s flagship isn’t taking its historical relevance for granted.

“Our goal is to matter,” King summarized, calling the move to get out into the world a “retro tactic.”

Anchor Jonathan Coachman (pictured above), who was recently on the road with the show for the World Series, says the decision to go out into the field is more a no-brainer than a scheme.

“Why you wouldn’t have ‘SportsCenter’ at the biggest event when it’s the biggest brand, [it] doesn’t make any sense,” Coachman told TheWrap.

Of course, that massive brand is being forced to evolve as competition is introduced and content can be consumed anywhere at anytime, and the younger generation certainly has more alternatives for getting sports information.

“We’re starting to realize that it’s not really 90 percent news anymore,” Coachman said of “SportsCenter’s” material. “People want to be entertained when they’re seeing the news or the highlights. And I think that’s one of the practical reasons for taking the show out on the road.”

Having worked as a WWE color commentator for a decade, “If there’s one thing I learned doing 10 years of pro wrestling it’s that the talent makes the show — the news doesn’t make the show,” Coachman told TheWrap — and he’s thrilled to both have and to be that “talent.”

“Now I don’t have to sit on the sidelines when it comes to the big shows,” Coachman, who admittedly struggled to find his way for the first few years of ESPN employment concluded. “Now I’m a part of every big show that we do.”