What it's like to host ESPN's SportsCenter without sports

Scott Van Pelt, anchor of ESPN's "SportsCenter," tells CNN's Frank Pallotta how the network has had to reinvent itself now that all major sports are suspended due to Covid-19.

Posted: May 11, 2020 11:41 AM


SportsCenter has been ESPN's go-to broadcast for sports highlights, news and analysis since the cable network launched in 1979. But what is SportsCenter without sports?

That's what Scott Van Pelt is trying to figure out.

Van Pelt, who hosts the network's 11 pm SportsCenter, is leading ESPN's flagship show at a time when the network is scrambling to fill its air in a sports world on hold because of coronavirus.

The anchor spoke with CNN Business about the challenges of hosting the show amid a pandemic, what he expects for the return of sports and which event he wishes he could cover.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You're a SportsCenter anchor at a time when there are no sports. Explain what that's like.

Well, the analogy that I've landed on is that it's much like being a waiter in a restaurant where there are no chefs and there is no food. I've often compared myself to being a waiter because if you think about it whether it's MLB Opening Day or the NBA playoffs... I feel like the athletes are the ones that are creating the content. All I do is sort of deliver that.

But at the moment — and this is not me asking for anybody to pity us because obviously our lot in life is not the worst — but in terms of the job we do compared to what we used to do, now we're just making it up. It's incumbent upon a lot of bright people — and we're lucky to have a bright group that produces our particular show and plenty more that work here on other shows — it's on us to figure out what it is that we're going to do. So it's a considerable challenge. For the longest time I got to come in and watch games and then talk about it.

What are the biggest challenges in trying to host SportsCenter right now?

What are we going to do in the A's? That's the first segment. Okay. We got that done. What are we doing in the B's? All right. We trudged through that. Are we going to be able to make it to the second half hour? All right. I can't believe it. We did an hour. What are we doing tomorrow? The truth of the matter is that there has been content to carry us. Whether it was the NFL Draft or typically some stories kicking around about the possibility of a league starting up again.

But I just don't know how long we can continue to trot out, "hey, baseball said they might play in July." Okay, cool. "Hey, the NBA is going to reopen practice facilities tomorrow." I mean it feels like updates on a snail race. These things are moving along — and they ought to, I'm not saying we should be sprinting back to sports — but the daily observation of the snail moving down the road is just that. So the challenge daily is to figure out is there news that's important? Obviously start there. And in the absence of that, who can we talk to about what's going on?

I mean we just basically call people and talk to them. It just turns into kind of this, 'how are things, how are you, what are you doing?' And I've been moved by how athletes and celebrities are all doing what they can to try to offer help because I feel like any time bad things happen, there is a long line of people that are saying what can I do to help? And that is always what inspires me about what we cover. It's nice to share those stories as well.

What is SportsCenter without sports? What is its purpose for your audience right now?

I have asked that question aloud and in my brain driving home some nights where I think, what are we doing? And I'll tell you what I found is that whether it's been athletes or coaches or friends or people I don't even know who reach out to say, "Thank you for just providing a space that sort of feels normal."

SportsCenter for the longest time has been that, this comfortable place to go... I compare us to that hoodie you throw over the corner of your door. It's not new, but it's comfortable. We're a comfortable place for people to come and we don't take that lightly. We could have shuttered this operation, I suppose, but we haven't because we feel like it still matters to people.

All we're doing, any of us, is trying to kill time, pass time, stay safe and try to get to the next day. And we're here for people to help in that passage of time. I don't know if it's noble or not, but we do take it seriously.

How do you think sports are going to work if and when they return?

It'll be weird at first. There won't be fans and people will be happy that they're back at first and then they're going to go, this stinks. Like it's just weird. There's no one there. There's no noise, there's no ambiance. It's just odd... We're complaining now, "oh, I just want anything." Do you? Because when you get sports with no fans, you're going to say, "well, we want fans." And eventually we'll have fans, this too shall pass. That's how the world works.

We will get past this and at some point, sports will return, and it'll play a massive role because sports always provide that best meeting place. Now in this case, it might not be together in an arena, but it will be virtually, I suppose. And it'll be the distraction. Sports, the great distractor.

You think about 9/11, and when we got back to "normal," what provided like the greatest sort of rallying place? Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York. George W. Bush standing on a mound at Yankee Stadium throwing a strike and putting his thumb in the air. Like, I've been doing sports a long time and that's seared on my mind... That was a chance for people to come together.

This won't give us that. So, it's going to be what it is. This really odd, disjointed thing. But it will be the distraction and slowly but surely, I guess, and I hope, people get back to normal. I don't know what normal is going to look like. I don't know if normal is gone, but we'll find a new normal and sports will play a huge role in it. It always does.

If you could cover one sporting event after the coronavirus crisis ends, what is that sporting event?

Well, it's not possible. I'd want to rewind the tape and run back the NCAA tournament. That was the one I'll never get over. For the young men and women, there were these remarkable stories that didn't get to end.

So, if you're asking me one event that I'd want to cover, I'd want to figure out a way for the NCAA tournaments to be played and be able to do those highlights.

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