To a certain segment of the population, Scott Van Pelt is a more popular late-night television star than Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert.
That segment — young men aged 18-to-34 — may be small, but it’s an elusive one for television advertisers and vital to Van Pelt’s bosses at ESPN. He’s one year into an experiment to broaden the appeal of “SportsCenter” at the midnight hour.
While Van Pelt doesn’t yuk it up with monologue jokes, the midnight “SportsCenter” he hosts incorporates elements from the late-night comedy shows, including a greater emphasis on interviews and bite-sized pieces of material that can live online independent of the television show.
ESPN was looking to tailor a “SportsCenter” edition to a particular personality and zeroed in on Van Pelt, a striking-looking, six-foot-six-inch bald man who had developed a following in recent years on ESPN Radio, said Rob King, senior vice president for “SportsCenter” and news. Besides radio, Van Pelt had primarily been a golf reporter for ESPN.
“I resisted it for quite a while simply because I liked the radio world I was in,” Van Pelt said. “I just never thought they’d give me the latitude to be myself. I never believed that they would just give me the easel and say, ‘Paint what you want.”’
ESPN hates it when people suggest that “SportsCenter” is a franchise going the way of the rotary phone. But it would be naive to ignore that sports fans can now easily retrieve scores and highlights online through their devices, and need not depend on a television producer to decide when and how much they can see their favorite team.
Van Pelt’s show uses highlights sparingly and in different fashions, like an author who decides not to tell a story chronologically. He’ll do a segment called “Filth,” for example, showing one night’s examples of stellar pitching performances, or splice some memorable home runs together from across Major League Baseball.
Showing his radio roots, he frequently debriefs ESPN correspondents on what’s going on in the sports they cover. With baseball reporter Tim Kurkjian, the routine often includes the two Maryland natives using exaggerated Baltimore accents.
Van Pelt’s nightly “One Big Thing” commentary, despite the dull title, is frequently the most-shared segment of his show online; his most popular was when he lamented that entertainment media looked past Lamar Odom’s basketball accomplishments to refer to him as a reality TV star. The packaging follows a trend late-night hosts like James Corden and his “Carpool Karaoke” find vital, where they create a presence for themselves outside of a time slot when many viewers are asleep.
Timbaland, who remixed the “SportsCenter” theme specifically for Van Pelt’s show, adds a hipness factor.
His show has attracted attention for candidly talking about sports bettors, and he’ll show how a seemingly meaningless play at the end of a game already decided can cause heartbreak or exhilaration because of its relation to the point spread.
“People bet,” Van Pelt said. “It’s pretty simple. I choose to handle it like an adult.”
Many sportscasters ignore that element, choosing to ignore money changing hands illicitly, perhaps not to offend the bosses of the sports involved.
“He does it in a way that celebrates the lunacy of sports fandom and the ongoing sort of calamity of thinking you can actually beat the system,” King said. “It’s done with humor. It’s done with love.”
The show has taken some heat from traditionalists who want a “SportsCenter” that will simply outline the day in sports, even though other editions follow that template. “If we do the show right, we do both,” King said. “You get what happened, and Scott’s unique sense of why it mattered.”
Van Pelt, 46, admits that he’s sensitive to the criticism, and initially argued for more highlights.
“Because we’ve done alright, it validates the approach of where we need to be in 2016 in the world we occupy,” he said. “I think we’re landing more often than not in the right place.”