The Dubious Decline of TV Sports

With the glory days of TV sports reporting long gone, Philadelphia’s local sports anchors swagger on.

local philadelphia sports anchor Al Meltzer

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.

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  • Kevin K

    Let’s not forget the producers, photographers, and editors who actually do all of the work behind the scenes.

    • Troy

      producers, editors, photographers? must be nice. 75% of local stations don’t have these things for sports.

      Even if we weren’t being squeezed as this article suggests (which is all true) in order to do this job anymore, you have to be young and willing to bend over backwards physically and with your time in order to stay relevant.

      There will be no more legends in this business because – even if they don’t burn out – station groups don’t want to pay someone for 10 years of experience when they can get someone to fill the black for half (or far less) the cost. Hell, a station in my market cut a guy after 5 years because they didn’t want to pay him.

  • Jay

    Can’t help but notice the writer’s cautious yet consistent backhands at Harris. Those of us who enjoy the city nightlife know how small this major market can actually be after 10pm. Clearly this story displays an internal battle within the writer who scribes a very interesting topic for debate in the rise and fall of local sportscasters. Their presence on tv will always create a buzz among fans due to recongnition. However, the personal shots without any sort of foundation at the character and ego of Harris seems out of place and quite frankly, unnecessary. What tv can also create is an element of envy, clearly exhibited by the writer who felt the need to travel irrelevant tangents away from the matter at hand. In what could have been an otherwise solid piece, I’ll be sure to overlook this writers next entry as I for one could care less about his personal opinion of people. In efforts to be transparent unlike the author, my motive to comment here is due to the fact that I know Harris personally. The writer is unprofessional and displays emotional baggage that readers simply don’t need to enjoy an article. Your opinion has little merit and it’s a shame that you chose to defame a man who is genuine and represents what is good in Philly with his involvement in various charities and organizations formed with good cause. Had you decided to do more research and comment on relevant data, you might have been on to something quality here. Yawn…this article was a waste of time.

    • Richard Rys

      I’m curious about all of these “personal shots” you claim I’ve taken at Marshall, since you don’t mention anything in particular throughout your lengthy diatribe. I don’t consider talking to a pretty bartender or enjoying the single scene in town to be anything disparaging. Your remarks are also especially odd since to me, Marshall has the job that just about everyone else in town at the local stations would want–he covers sports with a depth that the 11 o’clock news doesn’t allow for. I also show that he paid his dues in local TV before arriving here, which I respect. Where’s the problem here?

  • sam schachter

    As a former local TV sportscaster I will tell you that local TV news, in general, is where newspapers were 10-15 years ago. Struggling to find an identity and relevance in a digital age. Sports is the first casualty.

    Fifteen years ago, local news managers gave up to ESPN and never put up a fight. But the fact is ESPN and SportsCenter can be a huge beating. Who knows when you’ll get your team’s highlights? The regional sports nets are so much better for a local fan. And now as technology transitions your computer into your TV, the world is smaller and local has no chance.

    Additionally, sports news quit being about journalism and telling great stories. It became about personalities. Let’s get athletes to anchor. Let’s get more women (who may or may not be sports nuts) to attract female audiences. Local news and journalism, in general, has become about profit and not the truth. It became more about ratings than telling great stories. Sports has become about analysis. Analysis that is cliche’ at best. Sorry, I’ve been watching and playing sports (maybe not college or pro) for 40+ years I know what happened. Most sports fans do too.

    Ultimately, that’s why traditional journalism today is getting everything they deserve. In the late 80s, early 90s local news was at the top of its game. Great reporters, technology allowed even the smallest stations to go live anywhere and look as good as the networks.

    Today they all, for the most part, just look silly. It’s really pretty sad.

  • Tyronne

    Local Sportscasters:

    adapt or die.

  • oh,just see how many people follow you can know that your article is very popular.
    since i have the computure i see the TV at less time.
    maybe we should go back to the Tv