Originally created 05/15/98

SportsCenter' turns 20,000

Doctors sing its theme song in the delivery room. Fans in airports yell out an anchor's signature call like chickens yakking in a coop.

But ESPN's "SportsCenter," airing for the 20,000th time Sunday night, is more than nicknames, one-liners and funny commercials. It has changed the way people follow sports.

Before "SportsCenter," fans thirsty for highlights were left with three-minute sportscasts on the late local news or weekly shows like "George Michael's Sports Machine."

Today, for good or for bad, viewers can see every rim-rattling dunk, circus catch or showboating celebration dance long before the morning paper hits the doorstep.

"What other coverage did for you the next day or the next week, 'SportsCenter' could do immediately in a more exciting way, while giving fans context to performances and trends," ESPN managing editor John Walsh said.

The show also brought a new attitude to television, delivering news and highlights with smart humor and an edge.

"From the beginning, our marching orders were `You guys know what you are talking about. Say it, but say it smartly and back it up with opinion and facts,' " said longtime anchor Bob Ley, who will be the host for Sunday's 90-minute show with Dan Patrick and Chris Berman.

That successful formula has catapulted the network to unforeseen heights and made celebrities out of its anchors.

"Once upon a time we got laughed at when we asked for press passes," said Berman, perhaps the most popular of ESPN's anchors because of his memorable nicknames and catchy calls. "Now when I walk through airports, people yell out my `back, back, back' home run call and treat me like I'm someone important."

Patrick realized his celebrity status when the intern delivering his first daughter called her "en fuego" and sang the "SportsCenter" theme under his mask.

But all three anchors know that combining humor and schtick with journalism is not an easy task. Many other ESPN anchors and some imitators at other networks fall short.

"Just because dad leaves the power tools out, it doesn't mean everyone can play with them," Patrick said. "You can do too much, but you can't do too little."

The success of "SportsCenter" has spun off its own network and several other shows, most notably "Outside The Lines" -- which along with HBO's "Real Sports" has taken sports television journalism to a deeper level.

But ESPN has been a victim to its growing competition. Ratings for the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" fell 17 percent in the first quarter, something that can be partially attributed to Fox Sports Net and CNN.

"We are not the only good show out there," Berman said. "But we'd like to think we are as good or better than anyone else."

And after 20,000 shows, it still is.

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MORE THAN VIDEOS: MTV, the network that brought Kennedy and Rock and Jock to television, isn't the first place viewers go to look for sports news.

But the music video network has pieced together a compelling documentary on women in sports. "True Life: She's a Player" airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m.

"We wanted to put this issue in some sort of context for our audience," executive producer Lauren Lazin said. "There have always been outstanding women athletes, but the success of teams sports can be attributed to Title IX."

The show gives an historical view of women in sports and profiles two high school athletes -- Amber Morris, who is a member of her school's boy's wrestling and hockey teams, and basketball star Tamika Williams.

"When I was in high school, men were athletes and girls were cheerleaders," Lazin said. "Women still have the option to be a cheerleader, but they are also encouraged to be athletes."

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TUBE BITS: What happens when one network promises two leagues the same window for its games? That's the question ESPN is trying to answer, with the NFL and baseball scheduled for Sunday night broadcasts. Baseball officials are balking at the network's plan to move the games to ESPN2, which has about 17 million fewer homes. Baseball, which does not want to be perceived as taking a backseat to the higher-rated NFL, may try and nullify the final 4 1/2 years of the contract and sell the cable rights to another bidder, possibly Turner Sports. ESPN, which has shown games on ESPN2 in the past, is considering options to raise the number of homes for the three games in dispute, including using over-the-air or basic cable stations in certain markets. ... TNT's Kevin Harlan will replace the departing Verne Lundquist on the network's coverage of the NBA conference finals. The bombastic Harlan will team with Doc Rivers on one series. Dick Stockton and Hubie Brown will work the other. Lundquist is leaving TNT after the playoffs for CBS.


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