At CNN they're growing hideous beards to mark the NBA lockout. This applies only to sports anchors Fred Hickman and Vince Cellini, mind you, and doesn't explain Wolf Blitzer, but that's precisely the point: Roughly nine Americans are mourning the loss of the NBA, and every one of them, it seems, is a television sportscaster. "You can tell the length of the lockout by the length of the beards," CNN/SI managing editor Steve Robinson says of his network's handy Whiskerticker. "Fred and Vince have some pretty serious beards right now, and if the lockout goes into January, well...." We're talking Ayatollah.
"We're leaving the beards to David Stern," says John Terenzio, executive producer of Fox Sports News, referring to the NBA commissioner who increasingly resembles a badly watered Chia Pet. Which isn't to say that Fox anchors aren't counting the days since the work stoppage began last July 1. They are. Terenzio toiled at ABC in 1979 when that network developed a late-night crisis-in- Iran program that would eventually become Nightline. "On that show, we'd do 'Day 14: America Held Hostage,' " Terenzio recalls. "Here, we're doing 'Day 35: The NBA Lockout.' "
There's only one problem. "I'm not sure America knows it's being held hostage," says Vince Doria, assistant managing editor for ESPN's SportsCenter. Indeed, even without material from the NBA (which had been scheduled to begin its season on Nov. 3), average ratings for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter this November were up slightly, from 1.18 to 1.21, over last November's. Which suggests how seamlessly—and satisfactorily—pro basketball highlights can be replaced on your late-night sports wrap-up show by pro hockey highlights. The Kings are dead? Long live the Kings.
Those who doubt that any one league has a tenuous, dead-fish grip on American sports fans need only do the math. An hourlong SportsCenter has 44 minutes of content. "In a normal season, on a heavy night, with a lot of NBA games, we might do 12 to 15 minutes of NBA highlights," says Doria. On a normal night in a normal season, CNN typically devotes seven minutes of its 22-minute show to the NBA. At Fox Sports Net, says Terenzio, "the NBA might be 60 percent of our newscast." Now, NBA highlights are exactly zero percent of everybody's newscasts, and the newscasts haven't gotten any shorter because of it.
That's because TV sports shows, like nature and certain college roommates, abhor a vacuum. So into the breach have come other highlights: NHL, NCAA, PGA, NASCAR, even the ABL—the endless Scrabble rack of leagues and tours and circuits. "More sports have gotten a better pop," says SportsCenter's Doria. "We've also increased our analysis, which is difficult to do when you're buried in highlights. We did a five-part series on the five most prominent free agents in baseball. The lockout has given us more variety and more opportunities for storytelling. And none of that is a bad thing."
But what if you're a sports-caster in an NBA market with no NFL team, no NHL team and three minutes and 15 seconds to fill every night after the weather? In short, what if you're Rod Zundel, sports director at KSL, Channel 5 in Salt Lake City? "We'd forgotten how easy we had it with the Jazz playing," says Zundel. "Now we'll see what kind of journalists we really are. Let's see how creative and offbeat we can be. The other night we featured a paralyzed former high school football quarterback. Tomorrow, I talk to fifth-graders who are writing letters and poems to Karl Malone, asking him, 'If you don't come back, who will be my hero?' "
That answer is now clear enough: somebody else.