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.