Man Who Inspired ‘SportsCenter’, ‘PTI’ Passes On

Longtime D.C. sportscaster George Michael passed away today. From the WASHINGTON POST:

George Michael Sports Machine

(Turning slot machine into a “SportsMachine!” changed sports media)

From 1984 to 2007, he oversaw a trendsetting show that made liberal use of action highlights from games that was eventually called “The George Michael Sports Machine.” At its peak, the show was syndicated to more than 200 stations. The show was credited with inspiring ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” 

ESPN’s SportsCenter actually started in 1979, but I do think it’s reasonable to say that the production Michael put into the Sports Machine show, with the (now amusing) futuristic-looking set, did inspire SportsCenter’s advancement to better production value.

Other thing to remember about SportsCenter in the early days is that it had a very low profile nationally because cable was still in its relative infancy. Michael had considerably more weekly viewers with his network syndicated highlights show on Sunday nights, so for many people the concept of a national sports news show was first introduced to them by Michael. Hard to imagine a world without that now, eh?

Though a less-known connection to ESPN involving Michael probably had a much larger impact on the network we know today. 14 years ago it was Michael who first paired WASHINGTON POST sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon together for a television show.

Kornheiser and Wilborn first appeared on Michael’s ‘Redskins Report’ every Sunday in D.C., then went on to co-host a show called ‘Full Court Press.’ That experience helped propel Kornheiser and Wilbon to ESPN’s ‘PTI’, where they currently host the most-watched daily show on the network.

Another Michael connection to ESPN is through SportsCenter’s highest-profile anchor Scott Van Pelt. Van Pelt grew up in D.C. watching Michael and talked to me today about the experience.

Van Pelt:

Growing up in pre-cable D.C., we were lucky to have George, who was an innovator. He was a local anchor who thought nationally. His use of satellites for highlights was a new concept for most people in the business. He changed the game.

We (ESPN) did a small tribute when he announced he was retiring and I got a message from him the next day saying ‘thanks.’ Pretty surreal for me to hear that from a man I grew up watching. I told him he had it backwards. 

So Michael helped advance the development of ESPN ‘SportsCenter’, facilitated the pairing of Kornheiser and Wilbon on ‘PTI’ and was SportsCenter anchor Van Pelt’s introduction to national sports reporting.

Not too shabby.

Michael was well past his prime during the online sports boom, but he also impacted perhaps the most influential person in the world of sports blogs: D.C. native Jamie Mottram.

Mottram was the guy who created AOL’s Fanhouse.com, which originated the concept of hiring a collection of writers to regularly “blog” on the same site. Mottram then left AOL to start Yahoo’s sports blog site, which is currently the top sports blog destination on the web in my opinion.

Like Van Pelt, Mottram’s sports news first came from Michael. He told me today:

In the D.C. area in the ’80s and ’90s, no one in sports media was bigger than George Michael.

He and his team dominated the other local sportscasts, and his nationally syndicated Sports Machine was appointment television. It seems silly now considering how ubiquitous SportsCenter and SportsCenter-like programming has become, but we used to stay up late on Sunday nights just to watch SportsMachine. Other times we’d tape it on our VCRs and watch the highlights over and over.

It wasn’t that long ago, but it was a different then than now, and George Michael was King.

Mottram isn’t the only person from D.C. who characterized Michael’s grip over the city that way. Earlier today I asked my Twitter.com followers: “Who was bigger in DC, George Michael or Wilbon & Kornheiser?”

Respondents almost universally said that Michael was the most popular, by far.

I listened to Kornheiser and Wilbon pay their respects to Michael on DC’s ESPN 980 today, and it was interesting and enjoyable. But I didn’t hear any emotional blubbering, from them or the 10-12 other people I talked to today who knew Michael personally.

I’d always heard that Michael was a very difficult guy to work for, as briefly alluded to by Kornheiser today. But Kornheiser also said Michael’s motivation in driving people around him very hard was to produce the best show possible.

So maybe he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world, but I can guarantee that every single person reading this has been a beneficiary of Michael’s media acumen. How many can say that?