ESPN’s Jay Harris has signed a long-term contract extension that will keep him on the SportsCenter desk well past his 17th anniversary with the network next year.
“I’m happy. I’m where I want to be, doing what I love to do. I have no complaints,” said Harris.
Only a few years ago, media experts were predicting the death of ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter franchise. Since fans could get the game highlights they wanted on their cell phones, the desire for that on television was ending, they said.
However, Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive senior vice president of studio and event production, ordered up a back-to-basics approach on SportsCenter. Williamson counted on veterans like Harris, Hannah Storm, Kevin Negandhi, Kenny Mayne and Sage Steele, along with relative newcomers like Elle Duncan, to deliver the SportsCenter fans knew and loved.
There’s more straight news, highlights and storytelling; less opinion and debate. Since then, the show’s numbers have rebounded in a big way.
Take the 7 a.m. Tuesday morning SportsCenter, currently co-anchored by Harris and Storm after Monday Night Football. The Harris-Storm edition averaged 328,000 viewers in September, up 8% from September, 2018. It marked their show’s fifth increase over the last six months in year-over-year gains.
Harris and Storm also co-host SportsCenter on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Their weekend SportsCenter:AM posted it’s fifth consecutive month of year-over-year increases in September. The combined Saturday-Sunday shows averaged 637,000 viewers, up 11% from the same period last year.
Storm calls Harris a “giving colleague” who’s easy to work with. “He’s so relaxed and confident on the air,” she said.
Meanwhile, Negandhi/Steele’s 6 p.m SportsCenter grew its September viewership 12% to an average 576,000 viewers vs. 513,000 the same period last year.
Scott Van Pelt’s solo midnight SportsCenter was up 6% to 526,000 average viewers.
Things are always changing in sports TV. Harris says the decline and fall of SportsCenter was greatly exaggerated.
“We are really good at what we do. I don’t mind tooting our own horn. And people recognize that. That’s why they come back,” Harris said. “That’s why they turn on the television and watch the highlights because it’s something different from what they can get on their phone. They like the personalities.”
There had also been the criticism that ESPN and its studio shows like SportsCenter were diving too much into politics.
When he came over from parent Disney, new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro laid down the law: Avoid pure politics unless sports and politics legitimately intersected on a story. Pitaro had to call Dan Le Batard on the carpet this summer after the TV/radio host went off about Trump,
Harris said he agrees with Williamson/Pitaro approach, with the proof being that
ESPN’s numbers are up virtually across the board.
“We don’t plan SportsCenter around Congressional hearings. We talk about the stories as they come up. And whatever substance is in said story. That was another narrative that got out of hand.”
There’s always been a big, vocal segment of ESPN viewers who want the network to just stick to sports.
One problem nagging ESPN is that the debate over Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling for social justice became so incendiary in a divided country that media were blamed just for covering it, said Harris.
“They didn’t want to hear it. That’s another problem that I can’t solve in society. People not wanting to come out of their own silos – and listen to different opinions on different things. Just listen. People don’t like to listen. People don’t like to read. People don’t get past the headlines. I think we cover the news. We cover stories. We always have and always will.”