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The Imminent Death—and Amazing Life—of the Funny Highlight Guy

As ‘SportsCenter’ diminishes, a classic figure of modern sports media is becoming obsolete: the quip-happy anchor. You might say, they’re going … going … gone.

Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In another era, Kevin Brown might have become the kind of catchphrase-minting wiseass who was leading SportsCenter into the future. Brown, a 28-year-old play-by-play man, was certainly raised to be that guy. Growing up on Long Island, he staged mock SportsCenter episodes at the kitchen counter and forced his parents to watch. “I thought Kenny Mayne was the coolest person in the world,” Brown told me recently.

For a kid like Brown, SportsCenter anchors hovered somewhere between professional heroes and the aspirational male ideal. They were creating a new language on the fly; they seemed like genuine sports fans; and they got by on their wits. In the summer of 1995, when Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick and Chris Berman reeled off their catchphrases in a Hootie & the Blowfish video, it was as if a cultural passing of the torch had taken place. SportsCenter anchors had become rock stars.

A decade later, Brown enrolled at Syracuse and started training to be a broadcaster. You could hear his childhood in his references. In 2011, Brown’s play-by-play call of a women’s NIT basketball game was an endless string of catchphrases, including Mayne’s trademark “Yahtzee!” But when it came time for Brown and his classmates to choose a career path, a funny thing happened. A big chunk of Brown’s classmates went into play-by-play. Another chunk went into sports radio. “I don’t remember anybody coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m here because I want to be on SportsCenter,’” Brown said.

This has been a rotten year for sports media. We’ve had layoffs, pivots to video, and, now, a raft of sexual harassment and assault allegations. But one thing I’ll remember about 2017 is that you could finally see the end of the road for a swaggering figure who stood astride sports TV, if not pop culture, for three decades. It was the person who spoke to a generation and inspired an Aaron Sorkin sitcom. I speak of Brown’s old idol — the Funny Highlight Guy.

In 2017, Funny Highlight Guys were eased into semi-retirement (Chris Berman) or banished to Canada (FS1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole). ESPN’s first round of layoffs cost young hosts like Jaymee Sire and Darren Haynes their jobs. The network’s second round of layoffs coincided with the announcement that SportsCenter will no longer air from 7 to 11 p.m. on ESPNews. The 6 p.m. SportsCenter was recast as Michael and Jemele’s chat show.

Scott Van Pelt and John Anderson and a handful of local-news survivors now seem like practitioners of a vanishing art. As one TV agent put it, “It’s almost like that job doesn’t exist anymore.” Or, rather, it’s no longer the dream job, as the ESPN reality show once had it. If that’s the case, it’s worth remembering just how cool it was do highlights, before the gig is [very Dan Patrick voice] gone.

Larry Beil, a former SportsCenter anchor who now works at San Francisco’s KGO-TV, was talking about the high period of highlights. “This is sort of like looking back at dinosaurs flying over volcanoes,” he said.

At the dawn of the ’90s, the sports media was almost unrecognizable. The king of sports TV was the network play-by-play announcer — your Al Michaels, your Bob Costas. They had (much) bigger salaries and (much) bigger audiences. But the Funny Highlight Guy had some advantages. Instead of being on camera for only a few minutes at the top of a game, he was on camera for 30 minutes or an hour. Where the network announcer was forced to adopt a stiff, impartial tone, the Funny Highlight Guy could be an unabashed fan.

“How good would play-by-play be if you knew what was coming?” said Jack Edwards, who worked for 12 years at ESPN and now calls Boston Bruins games. “That’s really what the style of SportsCenter voice-over was.” It was like staring at a particularly good in-game Twitter feed: You think, That’s the joke I wish I was quick enough to make.

There were times — as Costas once put it — when anchors doing highlights was like open-mic night at a comedy club. But the highlight could accommodate different styles. “For Olbermann, the hook was erudition and writing,” said Brett Haber, who hosted SportsCenter during the ’90s. “For Dan, the hook was being the quintessence of cool. For Killer [Craig Kilborn], it was humor and irreverence.” For a bunch of the other guys, it was playing it straight. On highlight shows, there was a multiplier effect with the hosts. They were often better together than they were apart.

By the time ESPN came to the fore, local-news personalities had been doing highlights for decades. But in the ’90s it felt as if a broadcasting grammar were being invented in real time. “There weren’t so many great sportscasters when they were growing up,” said Gus Ramsey, the former ESPN producer who works for Full Sail University. “So they were quoting play-by-play guys. You could hear Marv Albert.”

Aaron Sorkin got interested in highlights when he was doing all-night writing jags on the movie The American President. “I kept the television on for company,” he once said, “and it was turned to ESPN’s SportsCenter. There was this rotating group of anchors whom I liked — they knew a lot, and didn’t suffer foolishness. I wanted to be part of that family.”

One way to lure people into the family — as President Donald Trump knows — is to create a catchphrase. It’s hard to overstate what a mania there was for catchphrases during SportsCenter’s high period. Olbermann and Patrick had least 76 (“It’s deep and I don’t think it’s playable,” “En fuego,” “Good!”) in circulation.

“There’s one story I always tell because it’s my Mona Lisa,” said Ramsey. “Kilborn and I were huge Arvydas Sabonis fans. I went to bed one night literally thinking, ‘I got to come up with a line about Arvydas Sabonis and I gotta give it to Craig.’” The result was: “Remember, it’s not my Vydas, he’s not your Vydas, he’s Arvydas.”

One night in the ESPN newsroom, Beil recalled, “Gus had seen that the movie Jumanji was coming out. So he’s walking around the newsroom and trying to sell ‘Jumanji!’ as a catchphrase.

“He’s literally walking down three rows of computers. I was there. Karl Ravech was there. Brett Haber was there. Gus is just running into ‘No,’ ‘No,’ ‘No,’ ‘That’s stupid,’ ‘Get outta here,’ ‘Get away from me.’

“He gets to Kilborn. He says, ‘Jumanji!’ And Kilborn goes, ‘Yes.’ We’re all looking at him like, Are you serious? Sure enough, we do the show that night, and he did it in his tone of voice: ‘Ju … manji.’ The next day, nobody would stop saying ‘Jumanji.’”

In the ’90s, an anchor trying out a catchphrase couldn’t get an insta-reaction from Twitter. They knew they had a hit when a fan wrote their catchphrase on a sign at a college basketball game. If a viewer called the network, they were usually pissed. Van Earl Wright, who did full-bodied highlights for CNN’s Headline News, told me: “Somebody called the CNN switchboard, some old fellow, and just cursed me out, man. ‘You’re a disgrace. Don’t you know who you work for?’ I hung up the phone and I was slack-jawed. Wow. I didn’t mean to provoke that kind of reaction.”

The idea of doing highlights was so exciting that — far from the exodus Kevin Brown witnessed years later — at schools like Syracuse everybody wanted the job. Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, once explained to me that, in the ’90s, young broadcasters no longer wanted to be Marv Albert. They wanted to be Dan and Keith. Gaudelli said it was like if every college football team had suddenly converted to the wishbone, and NFL GMs — which is to say, network game producers — couldn’t find quarterbacks to run their offense. That’s what happened to play-to-play announcing during the ’90s.

Like sportswriting, highlights in the ’90s were a mostly male domain — a white-male domain. Linda Cohn has noted that when she arrived at ESPN, in 1992, she and Robin Roberts were the only female SportsCenter anchors in Bristol. Stuart Scott’s references to Pookie and Ray-Ray caused some of the tight asses who write about sports media to faint. And Scott wrote in a memoir that he stewed when white colleagues passed him up for promotions.

Last week, a Boston Globe story charged that ESPN, while far more diverse than it was in the ’90s, still has serious problems. A young female anchor, Adrienne Lawrence, said that John Buccigross sent her inappropriate text messages and shirtless pictures. Female anchors feared they would lose their spots on shows if they went on maternity leave. (ESPN denied the allegations about maternity leave; Buccigross said that Lawrence was a friend.)

But for a time, Funny Highlight Guys seemed like guardians of a style of sports talk that still reigns today. Like a million sports columnists before them, they were populists — hitting greedy owners, baffled commissioners, and teams that underperformed.

Long before the analytics revolutions, highlights guys were also unapologetic about being sports nerds. “That was our target audience,” said Edwards. “We wanted die-hard, cultist, super-nerd sports fans who would argue that Carl Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown in 1967 wasn’t legitimate because he was tied with Harmon Killebrew in home runs.”

The highlight guy lived in a universe that was thick with references. Larry Beil’s famous catchphrase was “Aloha means goodbye!” Naturally, when journeyman outfielder Gerónimo Berroa hit a homer, Olbermann would counter with “Berroa means goodbye!” When they weren’t plundering their own colleagues, they went after pop culture. “That’s for Alanis Morissette’s pain!” Olbermann said when a player scored on the Maple Leafs — a nod to a bad relationship Morissette had with a Toronto player. It’s the same type of reference that would later appear in a Bill Simmons column.

If local sports guys were vaguely “wacky,” Funny Highlight Guys took the conceit a step further. They were vaguely dangerous. Like David Letterman (a model), they seemed to be thumbing their noses at the executives while they were on the air.

Bill Weir, who’s now a correspondent at CNN, was a sportscaster for KABC in Los Angeles during the ’90s. When asked by his station to do a quick cut-in during prime time, Weir would say, “Dodgers and Angels highlights at 11:00. Watch anyway.”

Craig Kilborn didn’t much like hockey. One night, Tim Kiely, a Turner Sports executive who was then producing SportsCenter, suggested that Kilborn write an intro to hockey highlights that was all about William Shatner. (The tenuous connection was that Shatner is Canadian.)

ESPN executives saw the intro and went ballistic. “The next night,” Kiely told me, “I grabbed Kilby and said, ‘They didn’t love the Shatner thing.’ He nodded OK. That night, every time anything happened, he yelled, ‘Shatner!’” Even viewers who didn’t know the backstage drama could sense that Kilborn was getting away with something, which is one of the nicest things you can say about somebody on television.

Funny Highlight Guys didn’t suddenly get less funny. The earth merely shifted beneath them. The biggest problem is that everyone can look at their phones and see what they used to see on TV. As Scott Van Pelt told me a few months ago: “People say, ‘Oh, I just want scores and highlights.’ No, you don’t. If you did, SportsCenter wouldn’t have changed, and we’d have kept doing what Dan and Keith were doing in 1995.”

Second, the catchphrase got played out. “I always think of Friends when I think of catchphrases,” said Gus Ramsey. There’s a weird kind of embarrassment in hawking a catchphrase in a TV studio that you wouldn’t feel when, say, posting a meme online. Jumanji is in theaters again this week, but does anyone want to shout the name over a highlight of a Steph Curry 3-pointer?

Watch an old SportsCenter episode and you’ll be stuck by how slow it is, how much it breathes compared with today’s version. Jack Edwards noted that the increasingly technical slickness of the show has made it less of a writer’s medium. “It’s all about topspin and the story count and how many flashy highlights can they get in there,” he said.

We tend to think of SportsCenter’s stranglehold on the ’90s as being due to a lack of competition in cable sports. It was also due to a lack of competition in late-night comedy. For a time, a viewer who wanted to laugh after 11 p.m. had network late-night shows and ESPN anchors and not much else. Ironically, it was Kilborn taking The Daily Show’s anchor chair in 1996 that made the field more crowded — even before everyone started to cut the cord.

The Daily Show also changed the course of TV comedy. Nowadays, it’s not enough to be a wiseass. You have to be a wiseass who takes a side. ESPN confirmed at last week’s talent meeting that taking a side is the last thing it wants its anchors to do. “Our audience is not looking for our opinions on the general news of the day,” one executive said.

Where the Funny Highlight Guy was once sorta dangerous, he is now curiously above the fray. Indeed, he can seem like the least dangerous guy on his own network when ESPN’s “opinionists” are yelling at each other — courting a reprimand from upstairs in the way SportsCenter anchors once did. The freedom the Funny Highlight Guy was once granted because he was doing sports has become somewhat confining. “If you’re doing a political joke,” said Larry Beil, “the 50 percent of the laughs you’re going to get aren’t worth the 50 percent of the hate.” John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel make the exact opposite calculation.

As a comic archetype, the Funny Highlight Guy may be an endangered species. But his act hasn’t gone away. It’s everywhere. Twitter is basically an open-source SportsCenter. You get the highlight from @World_Wide_Wob and the joke from Spencer Hall.

Kevin Brown noted that we consume so many brilliantly smarmy lines during games that it’s overwhelming. Once, you’d be quoting Dan and Keith the next morning. Now, you retweet the best lines and forget them seconds later. “We all get to do it,” said Brown, “and it feels to me like nobody stands out.” It’s something of a tribute to those who created the genre, and a fitting end to a childhood dream. We’re all doing a mock SportsCenter and forcing the world to watch.

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