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.
GROWING UP IN South Jersey, I was a baseball kid. As much as I’d bounce off the walls and roam the neighborhood on a BMX bike or a skateboard, there was something about watching the Phillies that put me in an almost hypnotic state. I couldn’t sit still at the dinner table, but somehow I was content to follow Mike Schmidt from first inning to last.

Athletes cast a potent spell, and so did the men who covered them for the local news. Bylines in the newspaper only held my attention for so long. When Don Tollefson, Gary Papa or Al Meltzer interviewed my heroes in powder blue, or were soaked with champagne during a post-season celebration, they achieved near-mythic status.­ If you missed the game, you waited for the news to see the score, but even more, to hear the stories within the game, as crafted by these anchormen. And it wasn’t just the fans who admired them—after giving Meltzer a personalized Sixers jersey in honor of his retirement at NBC 10, Mo Cheeks dabbed at tears. Papa’s death from prostate cancer in 2009 inspired citywide mourning. A decade ago, when I ran into him and his wife at a downtown bar, it was like meeting one of the athletes I’d idolized in my youth. Unlike some of those icons, he couldn’t have been kinder.

NBC 10 sports director Vai Sikahema remembers the glory years. The ex-Eagle began his television career in 1994, alongside Meltzer, the dean of Philly sports broadcasting (he debuted at Channel 17 in 1966), and Ron Burke, who’s now with CSN.

“Twenty years ago, everybody sat down before or after dinner to watch Al or Gary Papa give them their sports news,” Sikahema says. “Now, you can get it anyplace: iPads, smartphones. We’re competing for a slice of pie that gets smaller and smaller.”

Back then, sports could get four minutes or occasionally more in a newscast. But trouble loomed in the form of market researchers, who told network news directors that the future was in weather, not highlights. Forecasts were moved up from the end of the newscast to the middle, and expanded.

“In those days, it was referred to as ‘news, weather and sports,’” says CBS 3 sportscaster Steve Bucci. “Today, it’s more like ‘weather, news, weather and weather.’”

As the arms race to build a bigger Doppler radar took off, a storm of a different sort brewed further up the cable box. ESPN had grown from a niche channel into a swirling, all-encompassing tornado of sports coverage. Local news stopped trying to capture the attention of the die-hard fan and instead targeted the watercooler viewer, someone who simply needed the Eagles score and a talking point for office chitchat the next day. The rise of weather and the cable sports networks were like opposite ends of a vise, squeezing the life out of local TV sports.

“I used to get four minutes for a sportscast,” says Howard Eskin, whose first television story was the NFL strike in 1982. “Now I’m on my knees for 2:15. You’ve really got to beg.” During sweeps, or if news breaks, the share can get sliced to a paltry 90 seconds.

NBC 10 weekend sports anchor John Clark is the bridge between the old guard like Eskin and the future that Harris and CSN represent. In a fleece jacket emblazoned with an NHL Winter Classic logo, the six-foot-five Clark is folded into a window booth at Derek’s, on Main Street in Manayunk. Between sips of Captain-and-Coke, he’s every bit the tireless optimist you see on Sunday’s Sports Final—the only long-form sports program not on CSN that gets any real attention from the face-paint-and-personalized-jersey set. The 37-year-old Temple grad says he’s never longed for the spotlight or the sports-only focus of ESPN or CSN: “To me, there’s no better job in the world,” he says of his 10-year career at NBC 10. “We’re not going to do stories about hard-core sports … during the week. We have to do stories where everyone—female, male, young, old—is going to relate. Because you know what sports, in the end, is about? It’s about people.”

Even given his Mayberry outlook on the business, Clark has a surprisingly rosy perspective when you consider the experiment another NBC affiliate is trying in California. Last summer, KNTV, the station serving San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, began outsourcing all of its sports coverage through CSN Bay Area. Industry-watchers see this as a natural evolution in the wake of the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger, and while no jobs were lost—KNTV’s sports staff was absorbed by CSN—that might not be the case if other NBC stations adopt this model. A CSN Philadelphia spokeswoman says no plans are in the works for such an arrangement here, but Princell Hair, Comcast Sports Group’s senior VP of news operations, told Broadcasting & Cable that the network would “evaluate and look at other opportunities down the road.”

“Do I worry?” says Clark when asked about his job security. “I don’t know. The way I look at it is, in this business, we’re really lucky. There are plenty of fans who could do just as good a job as I’m doing.”

That on many nights Clark and his cohorts are doing little more than reciting scores and highlights that are hours old—an eternity in the Internet age—is another problem altogether. One evening in March, Keith Russell at Action News and Sikahema not only covered the same stories, but ran them in almost identical order. They also used much of the same footage. There had been no surprises that day at 6 p.m., either. CBS 3 covered the same stories as the other stations; in lead sports anchor Beasley Reece’s only fresh segment, a Temple basketball player was interviewed but never identified. Even athletes seem to have lost a degree of respect for guys with cameras and microphones. After a Phillies playoff game last year, Shane Victorino tore into Action News reporter Jeff Skversky: “You’re always asking these stupid fucking questions.” Another anchor in town is reviled by peers as someone who “doesn’t even like sports” and “wouldn’t know how many players are on a football roster, or the infield fly rule.” One local TV sports guy says of the business today, “It’s soul-crushing.”
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.
AT THE CIRCULAR bar inside El Vez, Harris recalls a line from his sports director in Huntsville, who was arguing with their news director about what was more popular, highlights or forecasts. “Well,” the sports guy said, “after the show, you can join us at the weather bar and watch some weather.” Of course, it’s easy for Harris to defend his profession now; he’s not fighting with his boss to get a few more seconds or trying to keep a hot new meteorologist from cutting into his time. Though Clark won’t cop to it, it appears what he’s really doing these days is auditioning for a job at CSN, once that perhaps-inevitable future merger takes place. As for the other stations, their sports departments aren’t moving the needle, either; there’s no buzz, no breaking stories, no impact. If they’re not headed toward the grave, they’ve moved into the TV news retirement home, shuffling around on walkers and getting by on tales of the good old days.

Still, as long as there’s television, anyone on it will be a Philadelphia celebrity. That’s where the bar has been set for fame here, a place where losers from The Apprentice and Survivor live out second lives as VIP guests at steakhouse grand openings. As Harris finishes his second pink margarita, he laughs at the idea that he’s much different from anyone else. “I don’t really have much of an ego,” he says. “I’m just a regular guy living the dream. A bad day at work for me is better than a good day at work for 95 percent of the general population. Think about that. A bad day for me is better than a good day at work for 95 percent of the general population. We all complain sometimes, because it’s a job. But what am I really complaining about? Really? Really?

Single and ever-mingling, Harris checks his smartphone for texts from his pals and heads out the door on his way to Del Frisco’s and wherever else the night might take him. Any perks he’s getting as a star on CSN, he’s earned them. It’s doubtful that free drinks and autograph requests will help his colleagues at the local stations keep their TV sports dreams alive.

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