Local Sports: Key Component of Staying Local and Relevant? Or First to Throw Overboard? (Both?)

Lets Go to the Videotape!

"Let's Go to the Videotape!"

Of all the things that have stayed with me about growing up watching local TV news, two things stand out: the evolution of WCBS/NY’s “2” logo over the years, and the time I got to sit in Warner Wolf’s chair on the Channel 2 News set.  As a kid in Connecticut watching New York news, I won’t ever forget Beutel and Grimsby and the Cool Hand Luke music;  I won’t forget Jim Jensen, Chuck or Sue.  But for some reason, it’s Warner Wolf who I think was the first true “character” that made watching the 6 o’clock news something I would actually talk about at school the next day, what with his trademark style and “let’s go to the videotape!”

Today, there aren’t many wise young sportscasters expecting to be Warner Wolf one day.  Sure, you don’t “go to the videotape” anymore, but more importantly, sports has become the go-to source for deep-sixing talent and freeing up cash at struggling stations from coast to coast. WCBS, Wolf’s old station and the one I watched as a kid, (Anybody remember “NewsBreaker Territory?”) recently fired its main sports anchor, Ducis Rogers, and the morning guy, John Discepolo.  Sports, struggling for air time, is down to one lone anchor/reporter.

New York still has Len Berman, but many markets may do away with local sports altogether. Managers claim there’s no need, since true sports fans get their info from ESPN, or regional sports nets.  As Stacey Brown writes in the Scranton Times-Tribune, “Nightly sports reporting and local news appear to be headed for a divorce.”  

WOLF/Scrantons FOX 56

WOLF/Scranton's FOX 56

“It is a shame you don’t see more local sports during the newscasts,” Jon Cadman told Brown.  Cadman’s GM at (ah, irony) WOLF-TV in Scranton.  He says costs are just too high, and something’s gotta give.  So forget about seeing your kid’s high school touchdown run on Channel 16.  Maybe it’ll make SportsCenter.

In my own newsroom yesterday, as the sports folk were busy writing scripts, producing their ever-shrinking six o’clock sportscast, I heard the bellowing boom of the Asst. News Director:  “Sports is dead!”  It happens a lot.  And as a newsguy, I get it–to a point.  When news breaks, you’d expect weather and sports to give.  But in this environment of cutbacks and layoffs, is killing sports altogether the next step?  And does that, in a sense, take away one more thing that sets local news apart?  

I’ve worked in some sports-crazy cities, especially in the South, and let me tell you, there’s hardly a bond as strong as that between sports fan and sports talent.  When they show up at the high school football game on a Friday night, that’s the kind of thing that earns viewer loyalty. (Remember the Friday night football shows where sportsteams would actually use the station helicopter to fly around to as many games as possible?  Bringing not only a camera to get the game on TV that night, but the chopper to fly the colors in front of a packed stadium:  “Wow, Channel 5 ROCKS!”)

But even in small town Scranton, sports is on life support.  And in big city, sports-crazed New York, calling it a sports “department” seems like a bit of a stretch.  Are we turning away viewers to save a few dollars?  Or do the viewers really not care anymore–have they truly moved on?


Filed under Cutbacks

13 responses to “Local Sports: Key Component of Staying Local and Relevant? Or First to Throw Overboard? (Both?)

  1. Brendan Keefe

    Well said Mark.

    Indeed, growing up in Connecticut as well, I hadn’t truly “made it” in the business in my father’s eyes until I was anchoring next to Warner Wolf one 4th of July on WCBS. I called my dad on his cell phone and handed it to Warner. In his trademark voice, WW said, “Hey Danny Keefe! It’s Warner Wolf!”

    That and when my dad heard my TV report rebroadcast on WCBS-AM 880 (or as dad called it, News Radio 88 — the old two digit freq).

    Chris Wragge was a great addition to Ch. 2 and has since moved to the big chair. Ducis is good people, too. All “good sports” in a biz that can longer afford a sports dept.

    • Brendan,

      Love the story about calling your Dad from the set and having Warner say hey. My “hey Dad” stories included doing fill-in duty as a NewsOne correspondent in Florida during some wildfires, and the producer says my next station is WABC and the anchor’s name is “Bill.” I almost lost my composure, pulling out my cell phone to call my Dad in CT to tell him to watch me do a liveshot with Bill Beutel. Amazing. And then, more recently, at FOX, opening the newscast one night on the desk saying “And I’m Mark Joyella, in tonight for Ernie Anastos.” I was thinking to myself, whoa. This is a weird, way cool job.

      Best to you and your family.


  2. Chris

    With all due respect to the people who tell us the stories each night and deliver highlights, sports is one of those pursuits that have some bearing when the rest of our life is going well. If you’re worrying about your job, your 401(k), or the value of your home you give less than a flying F about whether Pittsburgh beat Montreal, 5-4. Some people might say just the opposite is true: that sports helps us to re-direct our emotions. For local newscasts, I think the former is true: people just don’t care enough to have a sports guy tell us that Pittsburgh beat Montreal, 5-4. We have ESPN and others to handle that better than some local guy racing through his report in 180 seconds could.

  3. Harry A. Buttzman

    Wow, an intelligent buddy of mine just sent me this story. Where do I begin?
    Warner Wolf?
    That dude was a tired act when I thankfully left NY 28 years ago. He’s still on the air? Figured he’s be writing a column in Reader’s Digest or AARP magazine by now. Hey, Wolffie, how about packing in it and letting a few younger guys take over. If the station dumps your bloated salary, they might be able to hire a few hardworking people.

    P.S. Get a life NY sports fans. “Sports crazed city”?
    Spoken like a self-centered NYer. That city doesn’t even have major college football or basketball like Southern California or Florida, to name two regions with four major pro teams and BIG TIME college hoops and football. Oh, and the Knicks are a sad excuse for an NBA team. NY is little time when it comes to sports.

    • Harry A. Buttzman, huh? Well, with a name like that, what’s not to take seriously? And yeah, if you’ve ever been to the Bronx, you know NYC is a sports crazed city, whether the Jets make the Super Bowl or not. And sadly, Warner’s no longer on Channel 2, and it’s doubtful anybody will earn his reputation or salary again–at least not under the current financial model of local tv news. (And as a longtime Miami guy, yes, there’s college football in Florida, but man, seriously? Do you think most South Florida folks can even name the NHL team or identify anyone who’s ever been to a Marlins game?)


  4. Harry A. Buttzman

    Yes, I have been to the Bronx but one former dynasty there does not make a sports city. Don’t the Giants and Jets play in another state? And you still did not address the lack of a big-time college hoop and football program in the nation’s largest city. I do give NY lots of credit for the U.S. Open and the Belmont Stakes. Just a matter of time before the U.S. Open sets up shop in L.A. By the way, 109,000 people paid decent money last year to see the Dodgers play the Red Sox in a PRE-SEASON game at the Coliseum. They turned away about 30,000 more people. And they could have played in another broken down old venue (Rose Bowl) that seats 100,000. Now that’s a sports crazed city. We may not have a pro football team here but USC, which could probably plaster a dozen NFL teams, and UCLA in most years more than make up for watching a pro team with half the players running around with big fat bellies hanging over their jerseys.

  5. Harry A. Buttzman

    NY sports anchors don’t have a lock on being really bad. LA has its share too. The good ones leave for greener pastures.

  6. Harry A. Buttzman

    well said Chris. you sound like an intelligent dude.

  7. Harry A. Buttzman

    i miss howard cosell and jim healy.

  8. Harry A. Buttzman

    Sue Simmons was hot 30 years ago. How does she look these days? Haven’t seen her since then.

  9. Harry A. Buttzman

    jack cafferty kicks butt

  10. Chris

    Thank you, Harry. I’m not in the business but I do follow it from the consumer’s point of view. Perhaps there’s no more ‘sports-crazed city’ than Boston, which for me is the nearest Top-10 metro market. There, the sports segment is shrinking just like it is everywhere else. The ‘smart’ guys saw the handwriting on the wall and became news anchors (mostly with dreadful results). Still others were jettisoned for various reasons. But nothing is more painful than to see a ‘non-sports’ guy try to do sports (think: ‘Boom goes the dynamite’). What you want is someone who has a passion for & knowledge of sports, but is also affordable. Are the two mutually inclusive? They’re going to have to be, if what we see is a ‘new reality’ rather than some sort of down economic cycle that TV will bounce back from.

  11. Harry A. Buttzman

    Interesting thoughts, Chris. What college did you go to?

    The two can be mutually inclusive in the kind of market that can draw or retain lots of qualified people due to its warm year-round weather, extremely diverse demographics–and a need to mirror that diversity on-camera–and a growing population (Think Los Angeles).

    As long as espn.com updates their site seemingly every 10 minutes and provides live coverage of games on the Internet, local sports on broadcast TV will be a diminishing breed. But there are good people here in L.A. covering the many sports offered by Fox Sports West. No problem recruiting good people to Paradise. There is one exception to the shriveling sports segment here in L.A., where one of the independents (KCAL-9) for the last 18 years has had an 8-11 p.m. nightly news block, three newscast in succession seven days a week. They do short sports segment in the 8 and 9 and then a 30-minute nightly sports show at 10:30, which is somewhat competitive. The same station had a sportscaster (Glenn Walker) cross over to anchor two of the three hours of the weekend block and he has done a solid job. They also recruited an ex-ESPN guy (Gary Miller) to the four-anchor crew. Another interesting tact came into play when KABC-7 a few years ago named a very young guy as No. 1 sports anchor (Rob Fukazaki) who had limited experience but graduated from a local small private college and has done a decent job. That said, there are two old dogs on two of the major networks who have been here for way too many years.

    I agree with you about Boston having the chops to be considered a huge sports city considering the “triple crown” won in the last decade by the Cs, Sox and Pats. No argument here. I bet a good chunk of the 109,000 fans at the Sox-Dodger pre-season game at the L.A. Coliseum flew in to thaw out and catch the game.

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