Since longtime 9News sports personality Drew Soicher left the station late last year, many news programs on that outlet and other local network affiliates have been de-emphasizing traditional sports coverage despite Denver being one of the country's most sports-crazy cities. A veteran anchor who left a net for cable says the reason has everything to do with the rise of online sports media at the same time station budgets are getting tighter and tighter.
"The transition has been very awkward," says Vic Lombardi, who split from CBS4 in 2015 in favor of Altitude Sports, the television home of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. "Everyone is trying to find the formula — and for some, the formula is, 'Let's not even do sports,' which in my opinion is not very effective. And for others, it's 'Let's do it the old-fashioned way,' and I don't know if that's effective anymore, either."
In a post published this past February, 9News president and general manager Steve Carter explained that following the departure of Soicher, who subsequently started working for a sister station, KPNX-TV in Phoenix, managers decided to do away with regular sports segments in favor of an approach that would fold stories on the topic into the overall newscast rather than saving most of them until near its conclusion.
"Drew took sports to an entertainment level that was beyond highlights," Carter told us. "He hardly ever showed highlights of games unless they were spectacular. And when he left, we thought, we can still do the sports stories that matter. But we realized that we can take the two and a half or three minutes we saved for sports and spread it across the entire broadcast."
By doing so, 9News addressed one of the dirty little secrets of TV news: Viewership tends to drop as the show goes on, with the most precipitous fall after weather and before sports.
"We do see a decrease in the ratings at the end of the newscast," Carter confirms. "It's not the fault of sports. It's just that people feel they've already got everything they need. With scores and highlights, people are holding that information in their hand through their phone. A lot has changed over the years, and that's even more true now that everyone has access to their favorite team through their app and so forth."
Carter added, "This is an amazing sports town, so obviously we'll be covering all the major things that happen. But we'll probably be more focused on one topic or a few topics, depending on what's just happened in the sports world — and we'll have very capable, high-quality journalists to go out and cover events for us as well."
That remains the goal, even though the number of sports anchors and reporters at Denver TV news stations is currently smaller than in years past. At 9News, there are four main sports specialists (Rod Mackey, Mike Klis, Aaron Matas and Taylor Temby), while there are three apiece at Denver7 (Lionel Bienvenu, Troy Renck and Alison Mastrangelo), CBS4 (Mark Hass, Eric Christensen and Michael Spencer) and the combined Fox31/KWGN operation (Nick Griffith, Bruce Haertl and Kami Carmann). Moreover, such staffers are seldom the beneficiaries of station promotion. While sports personalities were once treated as if they were on equal footing with news anchors and forecasters, they're rarely touted in spots of their own or teases aired in prime time prior to 10 p.m. newscasts. They seem like afterthoughts, second-class citizens.
Given this situation, Lombardi's exit was well timed. Still, he stresses that his decision to leave "had nothing to do with Channel 4. They offered me a contract to stay. But to be honest, I'd been doing local news for 23 years at that point, and I woke up one day and was sick of doing five, six and ten. I wanted to do something different, change things up and be a little more long-winded with my stuff," as he's able to do on Altitude, where entire shows are devoted to sports.
At the same time, though, he acknowledges that "the writing was on the wall nationally" about changes coming for sports on TV news shows. He recalls that "I did a newscast one day that had this awesome highlight of a kid doing a ridiculous dunk. I went home and told my son, who was sixteen, 'You have to watch the newscast tonight to see this highlight.' And he said, 'It's been on YouTube for two days.'"
In Lombardi's view, this anecdote is emblematic of the shifting sports-media landscape as a whole. "It had gotten to the point where half the stuff we could show had already been digested in the blogosphere and on the Internet. That wasn't as big a problem for me, because I had more of an entertainment and opinion angle. But gone are the days when people are going to wait until 10:25 to find out how the Yankees beat the Red Sox. They know about it long before you can provide it."
With that in mind, TV news shows have been looking for content that's less time-sensitive than scores and highlights. "The hot trend is to give people feature pieces, where they get to know more about someone in sports," Lombardi points out.
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Problem is, this softer, evergreen approach does little to attract younger viewers — and the demographic that watches TV news continues to gray, as Lombardi knows from personal experience. During his time at CBS4, he says, "if you were above the age of fifty, you loved to watch, and you could tell me everything I reported that night. But if you were below the age of thirty, I was just some random dude. You had no clue who I was."
Lombardi also feels that today's sports reporters have a harder time establishing their individual voices because they're required to do so many things. He sees drawbacks in the rise of MMJs — multimedia journalists "who aren't just reporting a story. They're also shooting it with their own camera, editing the piece, making sure the graphics are right. They're having to do so much that sometimes the journalism aspect of it takes a back seat to simply getting it on the air."
For these reasons and others, Lombardi is happy to be at Altitude, where there's a greater incentive for Nuggets and Avs fans to watch games live and other programs are frequently rebroadcast, thereby making it possible for viewers to catch them at a time that fits in better with their lifestyles. And while working for a channel that's an arm of the teams that appear on it would seem to limit his ability to objectively criticize them when they deserve it, Lombardi says he hasn't been censored a single time in the more than eighteen months since he started the gig.
In the meantime, he still sees a place for sports on Denver TV news — but he believes the delivery system has to change. "The model where sports fans would come to you is over," he says. "You've got to go to them — say, 'Here's a story we did,' and put it on every digital platform you can. Because appointment television for sports, and for news in general, is gone."