On this night Patrick, whose succinct trademark phrases, such as "The whiff!" and "Gone!" are ESPN cult classics, is trying out an exotic basketball term. Instead of referring to an easy shot as a layup or a dunk, he calls a shot a "bunny," as in "Lloyd Daniels blows the bunny." He does this once, and Olbermann, off-camera, turns in surprise and mouths, "Bunny?" Patrick says it again, and Olbermann smiles and shakes his head. Then, when Olbermann's turn comes to do a basketball highlight, he watches Greg Anthony of the New York Knicks miss a three-point shot and slyly ad-libs, "And he misses the bunny-and-a-half!" When the show is over, Norby Williamson, 29, the producer of the 11:30 SportsCenter, asks if perhaps there weren't a few too many bunnies. Patrick doesn't miss a beat. "They do multiply," he says.
Number 14,069: It is after 2 a.m., and Barry Sacks, 33, the coordinating producer of the 2:30 a.m. edition of SportsCenter, is in John's face. For reasons known only to himself, John has just asked Sacks how many sick days an ESPN employee is entitled to a year. Sacks's reply is thunderous: "Nobody calls in sick—ever!"
Work? What Work? Aaron Owens, a production assistant (PA), the entry-level production job at ESPN, is amazed that he can actually earn money for the work he does, which is watching sports events on TV for hours every night so that he can cut highlight packages for SportsCenter. He is well aware that millions of Americans would kill to have his job and that lots of them are as qualified as he is to do it. On this night he is watching the Chicago Bulls and the Golden State Warriors, and he says, "The running joke here is that no one gets paid on nights he watches Michael Jordan."
Work? What Work? II Chris (I'll Never Be Your Beast Of) Berman, 37, the 6'5", 250-pound supermouth superstar who first anchored SportsCenter 13 years ago, says to Bill, "This place was always like a universe of its own, a sort of family-style universe. We fell in love together, got married together, had children together. It wasn't quite like Appalachia—we weren't marrying our cousins—but we were very, very close."
Work? What Work? III Mike Tirico, 25, one of the anchors of the 2:30 show, tells Bill, "Maybe it's the godforsaken hour we go on the air that brings such extreme togetherness to this show, but I think we are closer to each other than the folks on the other shows are."
Breakdown: Sacks, who began working at ESPN as a lowly PA eight years ago, analyzes and expands on the obvious: "We are mirrors of our own viewers; that's why we're so good. If we didn't work here, we'd be watching ourselves on the tube. We're all sports fanatics. The thing that's made ESPN succeed from the beginning is that—and I know this sounds like a cliché—everybody here loves his job."
Inside the Numbers: ESPN is the largest cable network in the U.S., with 61.4 million homes wired to receive it. SportsCenter's three editions are seen by a total of about five million people each day. By comparison, The CBS Evening News is seen by 13 million, The Today Show by 3.5 million.
Still, that doesn't make SportsCenter a big deal in the ratings—the 11:30 show, the most widely watched of the three, had an average rating of 1.4 for 1992. It is more the intensity of Sports-Center's following than its size that has made it a success. It has been essential in changing ESPN from a money-loser into a cash cow that may show an $80 million profit for '92.
Among sports junkies as well as sports journalists, Sports-Center's fresh and authoritative reporting ranks far ahead of all local TV sports-news shows as well as national competitors like CNN's Sports Tonight. ESPN's Baseball Tonight, College GameDay and NFL GameDay are of equally high journalistic quality, but SportsCenter is the network's flagship show because of its longevity, its frequency and its two hours a day of live programming—30 minutes at 7 p.m., 60 at 11:30 p.m. and 30 at 2:30 a.m. The last of those shows is rerun six times later the same morning. For the record, none of the taped versions of SportsCenter is counted in the total of 14,000-plus shows aired.
There is a different crew for each of the three editions of SportsCenter, including coordinating producer, producer, director, associate producer, assignment editor, researcher, production assistants and the talent, as the two on-air performers are called. The staff of each show has three meetings a day—initial planning, detailed story schedules and postmortem.