The midnight shift agrees with ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt.
“I’m available all day to be a dad,” says Van Pelt, who picks up 3-year-old Lila from day care at noon and reads her books before putting her down for a nap.
The young people ESPN wants Van Pelt interacting with are a bit older. With him soloing in the anchor chair since Sept. 7, ratings for the midnight edition of SportsCenter are up 10% among adults 25 to 54. He’s also beating all late-night competition, including NBC’s Tonight Show, in the key demo of men 18 to 34.
The midnight edition is part of ESPN’s effort to boost sagging ratings for its SportsCenter franchise at a time when the sports juggernaut is under pressure from cord-cutting, which is reducing growth of distribution revenue and profits.
Van Pelt joined ESPN in 2001 and hosted The Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN radio and ESPN2.
An edited version of Van Pelt’s conversation with B&C Business Editor Jon Lafayette follows.
You’re distinctive-looking. When you go out during the day, do people recognize you?
I’m 6-foot-6. I’m bald. I have these glasses. I don’t blend in well. In day care, I’m just a dad. Where I live, or at the grocery store, they know me as just a person in their community who comes in and buys bulk Diet Coke and whatever else. People know who you are, but 95 times out of 100, that exchange is nothing but pleasant.
Do sports fans want to hear something different at midnight than on other editions of SportsCenter?
Not necessarily. I think we have the benefit at midnight of results. As an example, [after Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference Finals] we knew that Golden State had survived. We got to hear from Steph Curry, Kevin Durant. We have at least a few minutes to let the dust settle and we get the first crack to give some context, some opinion, about [what will start] the day’s news cycle.
Is there extra pressure anchoring the show solo?
I wouldn’t call it pressure. What I had to figure out how to do is something I’m very bad at, and that’s pay attention. Let’s say I’d be working with Steve Levy or John Buccigross, or the late, great Stuart Scott. I’d do my bit, and then he’d do his bit. It was a dance. I’d dance a little, you dance a little. Well, [now] I’m the only one dancing. You don’t have time for your producer to communicate to you in a moment where you’re not already speaking. It’s just a lot of moving parts.
You’ve appeared at ESPN’s upfront presentation the past couple of years. Do you keep up on the business side of TV?
Of course. Anyone who is self-aware is curious about what the landscape is. Which is why I went out there and I tried to be as direct as I could and say, ‘Hey look, we’re doing great in the thing that you want, which is young guys. We’ve got ’em. Go buy some ads.’
ESPN’s had a lot of high-profile talent leave the network. What’s going on?
It’s like a team that has a bunch of great players and then they become free agents. And some other company team decides they want to wave a shit-ton of money at them and give opportunities to try different things. You put them end-to-end and then people say, ‘Look at all these people who left.’ And it implies they’re abandoning ship. And I totally resist that.…Cost-cutting and belt-tightening, I get it. There’s realities in our business. But if there’s a scoreboard, it says we’re winning by a lot. Show me who’s close. Who’s gaining?