As Scott Van Pelt sees it, there may be no better metaphor for his success at ESPN than his shiny, hairless dome.
“It goes back to the idea of, why do you connect with people or why do they like you,” Van Pelt said recently as he prepared to host the midnight “SportsCenter” show that bears his name. “At the point when I started losing my hair, I had to get comfortable with the idea that this was the end point. I could do one of two things. I could do something about it, which you can do. I’ve seen the ads.”
“Or, you can just be who you are. And in our business, for me personally, there can be no greater proof that I was going to be who I was than to just shave my head and say, ‘This is it. I have a bald, lumpy, freckly head, and I’m good with it.’”
Over 17 years at ESPN, Van Pelt, who lives with his family in Farmington, has become one of the network’s most recognizable and popular faces, a perfect frontman for a network constantly in crisis. At a time when ESPN often faces headlines about its alleged politics, he remains largely uncontroversial, even while offering unvarnished opinions. At a time when cord-cutting has sapped ratings, his show continues to generate strong viewership (up 8 percent year-over-year from 2017, as of Aug. 19). At a time when much of sports media scrambles to cover sports betting, he has long since established himself as a go-to voice on the subject. And at a time when most commentators are polarizing in one way or another, he maintains as high an approval rating as anyone in the industry.
So how has Van Pelt pulled it off? How has he become one of television’s most universally likable personalities? The Courant spent a late-August night with the host at ESPN headquarters to observe his routine, hear from those who work with him and see up close what his regular-dude magic looks like.
Van Pelt arrives for work at a time when most people are heading home. On this evening, he bursts into a glass-walled room in ESPN’s newest building sporting a suit, a tie and a deep tan earned during a recent family vacation in Key Largo, Fla. He greets a room of producers and researchers, then leans back, kicks his feet up on the table in front of him and dips into a bag of colorful candy.
Over the next half hour, the host listens to ideas for the night’s show and spouts opinions on subjects such as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ latest comments and developments in the domestic violence cover-up scandal surrounding Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Few personalities at ESPN have as much control over their shows — particularly their “SportsCenter”-branded shows — as Van Pelt does. In September 2015, the network handed Van Pelt his very own “SportsCenter” edition, complete with its own name and logo, ushering in an era of “personality-driven” “SportsCenters.” And although other shows in that mold (“SC6,” “SportsCenter Face to Face”) have since been canceled in a move back to a traditional news-centric model, Van Pelt’s version enters its fourth year as a talk-show/highlight-show hybrid.
In fact, Van Pelt says this version of “SportsCenter” has less in common with his previous experience hosting traditional “SportsCenters” than it does with his former gig hosting an ESPN Radio talk show with Russillo.
“It took me a while for me to become comfortable with the fact that this was a vehicle for me,” Van Pelt said. “Because that requires a certain kind of arrogance, and I’m not an arrogant guy. But ultimately, one of our execs here said, ‘It’s your show, it’s what you think.’”
In the production meeting, Van Pelt cracks jokes and shares thoughts in a stream of consciousness. He appears behind the scenes largely the same as he does on air: assured, eloquent, funny, self-deprecating. Those who work with him insist viewers can sense that authenticity.
“That’s the No. 1 thing when I talk to people who are fans of the show,” producer Marco Alfandary said. “They always ask, ‘Is he really like that, because it seems like he’s like that.’ And that, to me, is the key to the whole thing. What you see behind the scenes is what you get on the air.”
Russillo laughs when he hears Van Pelt, one of the most famous broadcasters in America, described as an “everyman,” but he can’t help but notice how many strangers walk up to the anchor in public and feel as though they already know him.
“When you’re a millionaire and you’re famous and you’re on TV, it’s kind of hard to be an everyman,” Russillo said with a chuckle. “But if someone has pulled it off, it’s him.”
Van Pelt heads to the studio to tape an interview with Alabama running back Damien Harris. The host disarms Harris with friendly banter, and when the camera rolls he jokes about Nick Saban’s bedtime and Harris’ status as a college football old man at age 21. Two hours later, he will appear equally at ease talking to 22-year-old Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham during an interview that will air the following day.
“He sat him down, made him breathe easy, and it went smooth,” observed his producer, on-air foil and friend “Stanford” Steve Coughlin. “He has a way of making guests comfortable in a way that I have never seen with other people doing interviews in the business.”
After grabbing dinner in the ESPN cafeteria, Van Pelt returns to the glass room to watch games with his show’s staff and script that night’s edition. Quickly, conversation turns to “bad beats,” i.e. last-second happenings that don’t necessarily affect who wins a game but do affect whether a team covers the point spread or a game exceeds the over/under.
The Supreme Court’s decision in May to let states legalize sports betting sent numerous sports media outlets ramping up their gambling coverage, but Van Pelt has been doing a “Bad Beats” segment since his show began three years ago. He’s careful not to claim too much credit as a pioneer in this area, but clearly he recognized an appetite for betting talk before many others.
Coughlin said the emphasis on gambling represents another example of Van Pelt’s authenticity.
“Talk about real,” Coughlin said. “What’s the No. 1 group of people that watch sports? Gamblers, right? So if gamblers are going to stay after the games are on and watch our show, we should probably have something for them that they would like.”
Van Pelt has a more basic explanation.
“We’re gonna talk about betting because people bet,” he said. “People do this, so not talking about this is dumb. And I don’t want to do a dumb show. I want to do a smart show.”
As baseball games and tennis matches play out on televisions around the room, Van Pelt confers with a researcher about his “1 Big Thing,” which tonight will focus on the Tampa Bay Rays’ effort to remake bullpen strategy with their “opener” model.
“1 Big Thing” is Van Pelt’s nightly commentary, his chance to offer opinions on a sports world that deeply fascinates him. It’s where his show diverts most sharply from the traditional “SportsCenter,” truly becoming his.
In 2018, writing commentary about sports, particularly under an ESPN banner, can be a fraught exercise. In the age of Donald Trump and Colin Kaepernick, every sports media personality must decide just how deeply to explore the intersection of sports and politics. ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has said the network will continue to cover sports news as it relates to politics but will avoid straight political commentary. No one seems to agree on where the line is or should be.
Van Pelt navigates this dynamic by largely sticking to sports.
“Everybody has their own feelings, and I have mine, but I look at sports as the great unifier, and I choose to treat my show that way,” Van Pelt said. “If you are Donald Trump’s biggest fan or his biggest detractor, here’s the score of the Yankee game.”
That attitude, however, hasn’t prevented Van Pelt from weighing in, every once in a while, about charged subject matter. When the Dallas Cowboys (led by Jerry Jones himself) knelt before the national anthem last fall in the wake of Trump calling NFL players “sons of bitches,” Van Pelt criticized the AT&T Stadium crowd for booing.
“If this is something that upsets you, you’re just going to be mad,” he said then.
Nearly a year later, Van Pelt emphasizes that his Cowboys commentary, which was shared widely across the internet, was not meant to be political. It was merely a response to what was, in his view, an indefensible crowd reaction.
“You have a billionaire owner locking arms with players and taking a knee to promote unity, and they got booed,” he said. “What the [expletive] are you booing? What are you booing? Unity: boo? The flag wasn’t being displayed and the anthem wasn’t being played, and that finally made me say what I said.”
Though Van Pelt has occasionally caught the attention of conservative media, he has largely dodged the ire that other ESPNers often attract. When Jemele Hill and Michael Smith hosted the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, with a personality-centered concept modeled after Van Pelt’s version, they drew persistent criticism for being overly “political.” Both hosts left the show earlier this year, and Hill recently departed ESPN altogether.
Van Pelt says his biggest advantage over Hill and Smith was that ESPN viewers already associated him with the “SportsCenter” brand, even before he got his own show. But he also said his status as a white man inoculated him from some of the anger Hill and Smith, who are both black, were forced to contend with.
“All you have to do is go to social media and the answer is obvious,” he said. “The criticism that they endured, race was not only never far from it, but it was right there to be seen.”
If “Bad Beats” and “1 Big Thing” are Van Pelt’s most famous segments, “Where in the world isn’t Scott Van Pelt?” doesn’t fall far behind. In that bit, the host flips through various user-submitted photos of men who supposedly look like him — bald, white and bespectacled.
Now, with an empty Diet Coke bottle and a 100 Grand wrapper at his side in the production room, Van Pelt scrolls on his computer through images of “himself” throwing an ax and sitting at the beach.
As fake Scott Van Pelts roam America, the real thing lives what he describes as a typical life with his wife and three kids in Farmington. He belongs to Wampanoag Country Club (though he rarely finds time to golf there), eats out in West Hartford Center and picks up his daughter at kindergarten. When an elementary schooler recently asked why he hadn’t revealed that he was on TV, the nationally famous host replied, “Why would I do that? I’m Lila’s dad.”
Van Pelt tells the story of being stopped at a local gas station two years ago while trying to buy a lollipop for his daughter, then 3 years old.
“Some guy sees me in the gas station and is kind of freaking out,” he recalled. “We walk out and my daughter doesn’t say anything, I put her in her seat, buckle her in, back out, we’re driving. Finally, she’s like, ‘Why did that man take a picture with you in the gas station?’ And I said, ‘Well, daddy is on TV, and sometimes people think it’s important to meet me.’ And she said, ‘But it isn’t.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re right, sweetheart, it isn’t.’”
Fast forward two years, and Van Pelt’s daughter has gained some perspective on her father’s fame.
“Now she’s at the point where she’ll just kind of eyeroll and say, ‘Everyone just yells ‘SVP’ all the time,’” Van Pelt said. “And I say, ‘What do you think about that, Lila?’ And she’s like, ‘You’re not that big a deal.’”
Van Pelt, 52, said he didn’t necessarily love Central Connecticut as a single guy in his 30s but that now that he has a wife and kids, he has come to appreciate the area. He lived in West Hartford for several years but moved to a bigger house in Farmington as his family grew.
“I genuinely like where we are,” he said. “Good people, great spots to get a meal. The schools are wonderful.”
The Yankees win on a walk-off home run. The Red Sox blow a lead, gain it back, then blow it again. The Cubs tie the Mets in the seventh inning.
“It’s the night of the comeback,” Van Pelt announces to the room.
Minutes later, the Phillies lose to the Nationals after pitcher Vince Velasquez leaves early from second base on an attempt to tag up. Then the Red Sox win on a Marlins throwing error.
“SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt” has its lead story.
The show comes together in a swirl of action. “Bad Beats” is pushed to the following night. Producers debate which Oakland Athletics player to interview after the team’s win over the Astros and settle on outfielder Nick Martini, who produced a clutch ninth-inning hit. Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova’s U.S. Open match, airing on ESPN, threatens a scheduling conflict. The contest has already stretched long enough that the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” has been canned, and now it may push back Van Pelt’s show as well.
The host appears unfazed.
“I’ll just go and get situated and we’ll figure it out,” he says.
By coincidence, Van Pelt’s show starts almost exactly when it’s supposed to, a mere 50 seconds after midnight. He begins with “The best thing I saw today” (a clip of a dog struggling in her role as bat girl), then proceeds to highlights of the various baseball comebacks, a WNBA update and a brief commentary on Jones and the NFL schedule. During a commercial break, Van Pelt tapes a hurried interview with ESPN’s Chris Fowler, on site at the U.S. Open.
Van Pelt says people often ask whether he’s tired by the time his show starts. He finds the question almost comical.
“At midnight the show starts, and it’s like that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ where Uma Thurman gets that shot to her heart,” he said. “You sit up, and it’s midnight, and it’s time to be on television.”
In the control room, producers watch the end of the Mercury-Storm WNBA playoff game and discuss which player to grab afterward for a live interview. They opt for Sue Bird, but she runs off the court in Seattle before anyone can corral her. As host of a one-man show with little natural opportunity to chat with producers while on set, Van Pelt has limited ability to weigh in on the conversations that go on in his ear. Sometimes he’ll simply shout questions live on air because he has no other option — and because it makes his show seem less like some buttoned-up act.
“SportsCenter” continues with baseball, tennis and basketball highlights, the “Where in the world?” segment and “1 Big Thing.” Stanford Steve teases Van Pelt on air, and the jokes flow seamlessly into the next commercial break.
Van Pelt’s show ends, but he hangs around the set to shoot a quick hit for ESPN’s app. Then he strides out of the studio surging with adrenaline and heads to a makeup room to wash his face. There, he muses on the wonders of live TV, where sometimes you have to acknowledge on air that you don’t have a shot chart for the tennis highlight you’re narrating, as he had done minutes earlier.
Some broadcasters might be annoyed to have to wing a highlight. Van Pelt seems to like it.
Coughlin looks back on the first-ever episode of “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt,” when technical difficulties left the host, live on-air, unable to hear would-be guest Braxton Miller. As Coughlin panicked off-screen, Van Pelt calmly joked about the mishap and moved ahead to the next segment.
“He shows his human side all the time,” Coughlin said. “People appreciate that because he’s not lying. There’s a trust factor with the viewer.”
Van Pelt confers with his team one more time, praising the “badass” Diana Taurasi and noting how well the show had come together despite “a lot of moving parts.”
Then, at 1:23 a.m., he heads for the door, a little earlier than usual. On most nights, he says, he doesn’t fall asleep until past 3 a.m. and sometimes not until 4. He wakes up at 9:30 or 10 and spends the day hanging out with his kids before heading to work again around 5:30. By day, just another bald-headed dad. By night, the face of ESPN.