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At ESPN, ‘SportsCenter’ Swings Into TV’s Morning Wars

ESPN is joining TV’s morning fray, hoping a new take on offering viewers stats and analysis of games will provide competition in the early hours of the day against Matt Lauer, Norah O’Donnell and Joe Scarborough.

SportsCenter:AM” launches on the Walt Disney-controlled cable network on February 8, the day after the Super Bowl, at 7 a.m. – the earliest ESPN has ever aired an original hour of the program. Over the course of three hours, hosts Jay Harris, Kevin Negandhi and Jaymee Sire, along with contributor Sarina Morales, will deliver a new take on sports news that is tailored to the behavior of the early-morning viewer.

“We are zeroing in now how ‘SportsCenter’ can distinguish itself throughout the day,” said Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and news. “We are really trying to differentiate the hours of ‘SportsCenter’ that are on the air.”

At the heart of ESPN’s play is an interesting realization by media companies and advertisers that in order to keep audience attention, they have to do more to match content to the moment in which it is being watched. Already, ESPN  launched a late-night version of its flagship program, with host Scott Van Pelt offering a more spirited take on the plays and match-ups of the day, and took steps to keep the overnight version of the program steady, re-upping Stan Verrett and Neil Everett to anchor the program from Los Angeles. All daytime versions of “SportsCenter” that run through 1:30 p.m. will be tweaked and debut in new versions the week “AM” debuts.

The dynamic is becoming increasingly common in the world of advertising, where marketers are crafting commercials suited to a particular moment in time. TV viewers who watch “The Walking Dead” have been shown commercials featuring zombies, the undead creatures who are also the subjects of the show. Pepsi recently worked with the producers of Fox’s “Empire” to make the company’s flagship soda part of the storyline – then ran an ad that completed the plot arc. At a time when new technology has given viewers so much more power over what content they choose and how they gain access to it, making programming more timely and relevant is seen as way to keep viewers from exercising their right to switch to something else.

ESPN has reason to make “SportsCenter” more memorable. The program is nearly ubiquitous on the network, taking up nearly 15 hours each day across various ESPN outlets, according to King. If executives at the sports-media juggernaut aren’t careful, the whole enterprise can become video wallpaper for armchair athletes.

“SportsCenter” will work to make the new A.M. effort specifically for the early bird, said King, including aggressively informing viewers what segments are coming up and when they will air.  If the show is going to focus on basketball, the anchors will tell you when that is going to happen.  “A lot of our fans are in transit. They are moving around. They are feeding kids and getting ready for work, or they are commuting,” he said.

As such, the anchors will have a more conversational tone than they might at other hours of the day, he said. In its first hour, the show will focus on game highlights in rapid-fire fashion, with hosts able to do more than just narrate the action. As the show progresses, anchors will start to “parse the night in different ways,” said King, looking at best and worst plays and more. In the show’s third and final hour, there will be some emphasis on news breaking that morning.

ESPN has gone after the oatmeal-and-eggs crowd in the past. Between 2003 and 2007, ESPN2 aired a sports-themed morning talk program, “Cold Pizza,” that was produced out of New York City. It eventually morphed into “First Take,” and relocated to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. King said the new “SportsCenter” did not represent an attempt to thaw out “Pizza,” and would remain true to its mission of keeping viewers updated about the latest sports news.

The new version of “Sports Center” will share some resources with “Good Morning America” on ESPN’s sister, ABC, said King, as well as “Mike & Mike,” the long-running ESPN Radio program that is simulcast on ESPN2. “Mike & Mike” will also get a new look, enhanced set and new theme on February 8, with Molly Qerim of “First Take” coming aboard to provide news updates, discussions of trending topics and a short segment late in the show highlighting “First Take.” Last year, ESPN and ABC sounded advertisers out on a package deal involving “GMA” and “Mike & Mike.”

Jus as Harris, Negandhi, Sire and Morales work on a morning agenda, so too will other “Sports Center” hosts have new missions depending on the time of day they are on screen. At 10 a.m., Hannah Storm will emphasize interviews with newsmakers and athletes. At 11 a.m., Chris McKendry and Jay Crawford will focus on analysis and deeper looks at the day’s big stories. A 90-minute midday show at noon hosted by Cari Champion and David Lloyd will be more conversational in tone, and run 90 minutes.

With so many hours to juggle, things may seem a little chaotic, but King has his finger on at least one detail. He has a pretty good idea of what the A.M. edition will focus on when it debuts, since the biggest game of all – Super Bowl 50 – will have been played the night before. “You kind of know what your lead story is going to be,” he said.

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