The Dubious Decline of TV Sports
This is what it’s like to be on top. Marshall Harris is sucking down a pink frozen margarita inside El Vez, head on a swivel as seemingly endless waves of women in tight jeans and tank tops roll by on this warm spring night. The Comcast SportsNet anchor/reporter is here to talk about local television sports—the job, the industry, and the celebrity that comes with an on-air gig in Philadelphia. A few moments ago, I left him alone for about 47 seconds to ask the hostess for a table. When I returned, he was deep in conversation with an olive-skinned brunette of impossible proportions behind the bar.
“Did you get into Broad Street?” he asked, referring to this month’s run, which sold out in record time.
“Yeah, but it took forever,” she said. “I couldn’t sit around all day at the computer.”
“It was my day off, so that’s exactly what I did! Got two of my buddies in who couldn’t sign up, either. Just sat there for two hours.”
The bartender smiled as Harris—one of those guys for whom the red “on” light never seems to dim—flashed his camera-ready grin. Casually dressed in jeans and a crimson t-shirt, the 33-year-old with the smooth pate and confident stride knows how to charm. He also understands both sides of the television sports game—local news stations vs. regional all-sports networks—having toiled away at tiny affiliates in Alabama and Mississippi before graduating to Fox Sports Net and, as of four years ago, CSN. Working for FSN in Pittsburgh was his first experience away from the grind of local news, where game highlights and athlete interviews compete for airtime with four-alarm fires and five-day forecasts. It’s a fight the sports guys almost always lose.
After FSN, Harris says, “I was like, I don’t think I want to go back to local news. Depending on the market, sports isn’t considered as important. When you work at a regional, it’s all sports all the time.” Despite the mob at the bar, Harris’s glass isn’t empty for more than a moment before it’s full again. He’s got a way with bartenders—or at least this one.
If you didn’t know better, you might think this was 1987, back when the well-groomed gents who reported on athletes in Philadelphia were almost as celebrated as the players themselves, back when sports on the 11 o’clock news was still newsworthy. But the game has changed for ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, even in this Phillies-crazy, Eagles-obsessed town. With less time in their newscasts, fewer resources, pressure from the Internet, and an audience that’s already learned everything it needs to know about sports from cable guys like Harris, the anchors and reporters at those stations today do little more than talk over highlights and deliver scores you already saw on your iPhone. These guys—and with only a handful of women in the market, it’s still a boys’ club—used to be the ones who got recognized in Center City restaurants and their neighborhood Wawas, because what they did mattered. Now? In our celebrity-starved city, they still merit the occasional head-turn—but the truth is, many of them may be on the verge of irrelevance, if not extinction.