ESPN "SportsCenter'' hosts, from left, Chris Berman, Beb Ley and...

ESPN "SportsCenter'' hosts, from left, Chris Berman, Beb Ley and Dan Patrick pose on the set of the show ahead of its 20,000th episode on May 17, 1998. Credit: AP

ESPN plans a relatively - and uncharacteristically - low-key celebration of the 50,000th "SportsCenter'' Thursday, so let me help a bit with the hype if I may:

SportsCenter is the single most important sports show in American television history. Yup, more so than "Monday Night Football'' or "ABC's Wide World of Sports'' or "Stump the Schwab.''

It changed the way sports news was disseminated and consumed (for better and worse), changed the way athletes behave on the field (for better and worse), changed the very relationship between athletes and some of those who cover them.

Look no further than the decades-old series of commercials for the show that blur the line between journalists and jocks in ways both amusing and troubling.

It's been a heck of a ride for a program that premiered 33 years ago Friday, the night ESPN was born.

The network put three current and former anchors on the phone last week to mark the occasion, and while Charley Steiner offered entertaining nostalgia - "I feel like Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future,' he said - the intriguing question was where SportsCenter goes from here.

The competition is more daunting than ever, with specialized channels serving avid fans of every major sport and ESPN's own outlets offering alternatives from nuts-and-bolts highlights (ESPNEWS) to mindless arguing (Skip Bayless).

This is no small matter for ESPN, because SportsCenter is a goldmine. No, ratings don't match those of games in major sports, but those events come with stiff rights fees.

Executive producer Mark Gross said the goal is to evolve with technology and give fans what they want when they want it. One plan is to use the Internet to offer personalized versions of the show, focused on specific teams.

"Unless we're idiots, there's no way this doesn't make us better,'' anchor Sage Steele said of competition from the likes of the MLB and NFL networks, plus local shows such as SNY's "SportsNite.''

And television alternatives are not the half of it. "Something happens in a game, the highlight is on Twitter, if it's a remarkable moment, in five minutes,'' Van Pelt said. "You're aware of that.''

ESPN has to hope some combination of quality, branding and habit keeps everyone coming back for more.

"In a landscape where you can go to a million different places to find things out - your phone, your iPad, whatever,'' Van Pelt said, "I think it's still home: SportsCenter."

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