The Dubious Decline of TV Sports

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

ANY SENSE OF professional ennui isn’t keeping dudes like Clark from making the most of their Delaware Valley fame. But just as many athletes have become more guarded about their off-camera exploits since the heyday of Papa and Meltzer, so have the men who cover them on TV. Clark is no stranger to Center City nightlife or the Princeton in Avalon, where it’s hard to miss him, surrounded by 20-something females clutching Coors Lights and swaying in designer heels. As one fellow sportscaster says, “John Clark enjoys being John Clark.”

Yet over drinks in Manayunk, he’s surprisingly cautious when his personal life is mentioned. He’s “off and on” with his unnamed girlfriend; he’s a Shore guy, but won’t elaborate on his seaside carousing. Call it the Bolaris Effect—even the most wide-eyed TV news jocks know the risks of revealing too much (or, in the case of Russell and Skversky, have been muzzled by ABC and were unable to comment for this story). Clark got a taste of life as a Philly celebrity in the cell-phone age when someone videotaped him at a Bruce Springsteen concert in 2009 and posted the footage on YouTube. Perhaps as embarrassing as his fist-bumping and singing was his fashion faux pas—wearing a Springsteen tee to a Springsteen show. In a smart move, NBC 10 de-fanged the joke by getting in on it; Clark forced a grin as Eskin and Sikahema laughed at the clip on Sports Final.

CSN’s Harris—a self-described “Center City snob”—is also a fixture on the social scene, from South Street’s bars to Old City. If he seems omnipresent around town, his profile on the sports landscape is nearly as high. In a given week, he does what his local-news colleagues can only fantasize about: hosts specials, like a half-hour college hoops show; handles anchor duties for live Sixers pre- and post-game coverage; reports on the Phillies. CSN’s SportsRise host, Ron Burke, spent almost nine years at Channel 10, and says he wasn’t sorry to leave local news behind when CSN debuted here 15 years ago. “It was great,” he says. “The all-sports angle was the cherry on top. Going from three minutes at ’CAU to doing 30-minutes-to-an-hour packages—I call it a playground. We have the opportunity to do long-form television and be creative.” Although Burke won’t admit it—none of his colleagues at competing stations will, either—it’s hard to imagine there’s not some serious CSN envy emanating from Bala Cynwyd to 4th and Market.

Ironically, the song Clark was singing in that video was “Radio Nowhere,” the Boss’s lament over the demise of FM rock radio that could just as easily describe the state of local TV news. It’s not crazy to think that as corporate­run news stations continue to hemorrhage viewers and slash budgets, sports could one day be axed altogether, replaced by a news anchor who simply runs through the day’s highlights in 90 seconds or less. In some smaller markets, such as Terre Haute and West Palm Beach, stations have experimented with shuttering their sports departments, with mixed results. Industry analysts say the extinction of sports on local news is unlikely, and even the most pessimistic insiders say that in markets like Philadelphia, scores and highlights are still essential to a newscast’s identity.

“We’re not an endangered species,” Clark insists. “But we all know that in some ways, we’re like the fifth kid in the family of five trying to get the family car that night. Sports is not what it used to be on local news.” CSN fills the resulting void well—after every Eagles game, 49,000 households do the unthinkable and leave ESPN, Fox or CBS to watch Eagles Postgame Live. Yet regardless of the quality of CSN’s coverage, those of us who remember what the Papas and Meltzers added to our enjoyment of the teams we love miss the variety of voices across the television landscape. That’s far sadder than the fact that the drunken college girls of Avalon buzzing around John Clark may have no idea what he does for a living.

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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.

  • promdress

    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