When Scott Van Pelt comes on the set of his new show at midnight at the tail end of Labor Day, he won’t have many of the trappings one might expect. There will be no in-studio band, and he won’t stand up in front of a microphone and spout a series of one-liners about whatever was trending on social media during the day.
Why would he? This is a sports-news program on ESPN.
And yet, when Van Pelt greets viewers tuning into a new midnight edition of “SportsCenter” as Labor Day melts back into the working week, he may offer a few elements that would make his program a distant cousin, perhaps, to the antics-filled shows seen elsewhere at that time from Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. This “SportsCenter” arrives with ideas for segments like a bit of Van Pelt’s signature commentary, or “Best Thing I Saw Today,” a pick by the host of his favorite thing of the day. There will be a signature set, with new lighting and a desk, and a new cut of the “SportsCenter” theme produced by Timbaland. Dan Patrick will serve as the show’s first guest. And the network suggested that Van Pelt will include lots of his trademark “self-deprecating wit.”
“People will say, ‘Oh, you’re funny.’ Well, occasionally,” Van Pelt said in a recent interview. “But I would not set out on a daily basis to try to be funnier than Fallon or Kimmel or any of those folks that are in that space. That’s what they do. They’re awfully good at that.”
What Van Pelt thinks he can do is fill a need, and make it interesting at the same time. Bob Dylan once wrote of diabolical things happening at midnight, but Van Pelt thinks his viewers are just looking for a little closure: the latest word on late games and a nod to what’s happening out on the East Coast. Working in a similar vein, ESPN recently extended contracts for Stan Verrett and Neil Everett to continue to host the 1 a.m. version of the show, during which they hold forth from the West Coast.
“At midnight, we are airing right immediately at the end of football games, basketball games, hockey games,” he explained. “We’re able to react to that and bring results in as they are happening, put it in context, and create some room over the course of an hour to take a swing at the day’s stories that are of interest and importance in our estimation.”
It’s a slight pivot for Van Pelt, who is best known for co-hosting an 11 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter”; a radio program, “SVP and Russillo”; as well as some golf events. Indeed, one of his claims to fame is a work relationship, of sorts, with legend Tiger Woods. “I was a brand-new reporter when Tiger was becoming a household name, and I was young enough at the time,” Van Pelt recalled. “We just struck up a very cordial, professional relationship, and as he was about to become a rock star, I was the right guy in the right place.”
He may mix well with some celebrities, but Van Pelt doesn’t think he’s the next Johnny Carson – even if he does open in the slot at a time when nearly every big media company is renewing its efforts to capture a slice of the audience that might have tuned in to that late-night host in a different era. With Stephen Colbert launching a new reign on CBS’ “Late Show” Tuesday night, the effort being put behind wooing wee-hours audiences has intensified significantly.
“I’m glad we have wiggle room,” said Van Pelt, who acknowledged he would not have shied away from talking about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or their recent “deflate-gate” imbroglio. But his “SportsCenter” won’t be a place for a “lip-sync battle” any more than NBC’s “Tonight Show” would serve someone interested in getting a highlight reel of the latest Golden State Warriors game.
Host and staff will find their level as the show proceeds, Van Pelt said. “My concept of what I envision the hour to be might be incorrect by October. We might realize we are all missing the boat,” he said. “We’ve got the freedom and the autonomy to figure this thing out. There’s an amount of rope to be given. The key is not hanging yourself with it.”