'Sports Center' Chief Keeps the 'Worldwide Leader' in the Lead

On Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. ET, ESPN’s flagship studio show, SportsCenter’ aired its 50,000 episode. And Mark Gross, the man behind the long-running news program, has long been busy figuring out how to make the next 50,000 even more memorable than the first.

As ESPN’s senior VP and executive producer of production, Gross oversees many of the network’s content areas, including the ESPNEWS network, college sports, NBA, NFL studio programming, Little League World Series and the content integration and production wrap unit. But he knows it’s SportsCenter that sits atop ESPN’s totem pole.

“You always come back to SportsCenter,” said Gross. “It’s exciting to be a part of the team that produces it.”

It’s also exciting to dream big about future possibilities for the show. One of the ways Gross hopes to one day help the program be all things to all fans is to give viewers a personalized SportsCenter experience, one that answers the question, “‘If I just want the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers highlights, how can I get my own personal SportsCenter?’” ESPN is already looking into ways to make that happen. It’s an ambitious but logical progression from the current localized versions of the show’s website in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas/Ft. Worth and New York markets that offer region-specific versions of SportsCenter.

Personalizing SportsCenter as much as possible, said Gross, is another tenet of the show’s multiplatform strategy. Gross said a continued expansion into the social media space is imperative because “that’s where fans expect [us] to be.”

SportsCenter recently began integrating the iPowow device into its broadcast, which creates new options for encouraging interaction between the network and the viewer/user.

The rise of other 24-hour sports networks has turned up the pressure for ESPN to maintain its lofty status. And like any athlete at the top of his game, Gross welcomes the competitive challenge. “That’s the way it should be,” he said. As he works to further evolve the show, Gross promises that SportsCenter won’t stray too far from its identity. “We don’t need to turn into something we’re not,” he said. “The bread-andbutter is still scores and highlights.”

Being sports TV’s big dog subjects ESPN to intense scrutiny, as Gross is well aware. And since the show has been a part of the sports lexicon for so long, viewers tend to understandably “feel they have ownership.”

One of the biggest criticisms that ESPN comes under is perceived favoritism to certain teams and players (a certain New York Jets backup quarterback is, for instance, a frequent lightning rod). Gross said he merely attempts to give viewers what he thinks they want: “We try to ! gure out what the buzz is across the country.”

Norby Williamson, ESPN executive VP of programming & acquisitions, touted Gross’ ability to get the pulse of fans: “He has a unique ability to drive creative content that delivers results while being able to manage a high-energy department that requires his attention 24/7.”

Gross welcomes input from everyone, something SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt echoed on a recent conference call with reporters: “Anybody whose voice is raised that brings up a point or a story line that deserves to be looked at, it’s got a shot to make it in,” Van Pelt said.

Having been with the network since 1988, Gross has seen SportsCenter mature through the years. The biggest difference Gross can see is the relentless news cycle today. “The amount of sports news that is out there every single day is just amazing,” he said.

But one news event that always sticks out to him over those 24 years is the bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The attack took place only blocks away from where ESPN was headquartered and, as Gross recalled the scene, “We just happened to be there.

“There weren’t a lot of people on TV live at 1:20 in the morning,” he said. “We were the only ones still live, and we had a camera present.” Gross noted that Atlanta area news media were referencing SportsCenter in their reports, something he considers a bit of a watershed moment for the program.

That’s only one of the many reasons ESPN has been the only professional home Gross has known—and why the sports fan is thankful that, as he put it, “I just happened to go to the College World Series in Bristol, Conn.,” in June 1988. That’s when he found out from a friend—who was already working at ESPN—that the network offered a production assistant program, which turned out to be step one in a fruitful career.

“The company has given me everything that I have,” Gross said. “I’m just a loyal company guy.”

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