They were the golden days of local sports television.
You knew the names: Dick Crippen, Chris Thomas, Chip Carter. You knew the faces: Al Keck, Andy Hardy, J.P. Peterson. They were guests in our home each night, running down the scores and bringing us the highlights. They broke news and told stories.
If you wanted the latest news on the Bucs, you got it from Crippen. Who won Daytona? Hardy would tell you. What happened in college football? Keck gave you the scores. You couldn't call yourself a sports fan and not watch the Tampa Bay sportscasts.
But those days of the 1970s, '80s and early '90s seem long ago. Stations have trimmed their number of sports anchors. The anchors who remain are mostly unfamiliar. What used to be a five- to seven-minute sports segment jammed with local flavor has been whittled to sometimes little more than a Rays score.
Local news has changed, and so has how people get it. ESPN, the Internet and even the weather have sent local sports news the way of the VCR and 8-track tapes.
"When you ask viewers what they want in a local newscast, they say local news, neighborhood news, weather, breaking news, investigative reports,'' said WTSP-Ch. 10 news director Peter Roghaar. "Sports is like 15th on the list.''
Carter is still at WTVT-Ch. 13, and Rock Riley is at Bright House Sports Network. Apart from them, the old guard is gone with the old-school local sportscast. A comeback seems unlikely because of technology and viewer habits.
"Back in the old days, if you wanted sports news, we were the only place you could get it,'' Crippen said. "Today the viewer is getting his sports news from so many other places.''
The advent of the Internet hastened the decline of local sports news. Instead of waiting until the 11 p.m. news to get the day's scores, fans turn to their computers, cellphones or BlackBerrys.
And not only can fans get the final score of every game at a moment's notice, they can get up-to-the-second updates on games in progress, down to the latest pitch or incomplete pass.
And they can get those updates from practically anywhere on the planet.
Breaking news, such as a coach getting fired or a star player changing teams, can be delivered in e-mails and by the social networking and news-delivering website Twitter. Teams and leagues have created websites to deliver their information, including live blogging from games.
"It's just so easy to get your sports news from other sources,'' Ch. 10's Roghaar said.
Keck, who spent more than 20 years as a Tampa Bay sports anchor at Ch. 10 and WFTS-Ch. 28, sums up what started the decline of local sportscasts in four letters: ESPN.
The 24-hour sports network hit the airwaves in 1979 and within a decade had become fans' go-to source for scores and news. Instead of offering a five-minute block of scores and highlights two or three times a day, ESPN devotes several hours a day to the sports scene, including more extensive highlights and analysis than local television has the time and resources to produce.
A ticker at the bottom of the screen repeats the scores and news over and over even when ESPN is broadcasting games. ESPN's parent company eventually created a network, ESPNews, that is a 24-hour sportscast. Why wait until 11 at night when you can get your sports news whenever you want for as long as you want it?
"But here's the thing,'' Keck said. "I still contend that local stations can provide content about the local teams that ESPN cannot. Sure, (ESPN) can tell you the Bucs score and show you highlights and maybe even have an interview or two. But they still can't take you as in-depth as the local station can.
"That's where I think local television can still make inroads. ESPN isn't going to give you five minutes every day on the Bucs and give you the latest news on a Thursday from practice. They aren't going to interview Joe Maddon after every Rays game. The local station can still do that.''
The last frontier local stations have is hyper-local news, Ch. 10's Roghaar said.
"The other thing to remember is that people watching the local news are probably not hard-core sports fans,'' he said. "They are general fans and are more interested in human interest stories. So instead of giving them the X's and O's, we might be looking more at a general story that appeals to casual fans. But we do still try to take you inside the Bucs and Rays and so forth.''
Keck recalls 2004, when he was with Ch. 28 and the station attended every road playoff game during the Lightning's two-month Stanley Cup run. Crippen points to the days when he was with Ch. 8 and filed reports from the Super Bowl for a week. Dave Cook, who was a sports producer at Ch. 8 for more than 21 years, said those were the days when local stations consistently produced well-done human interest stories.
"That's what I miss,'' Cook said. "I miss those days when we would take you behind the scenes to introduce you to a local athlete with an interesting story to tell or tell you something you didn't know about one of the local big names. We were storytellers, and it was important for us to tell those stories. And we dedicated a lot of resources to sports to tell those stories.''
On a recent Saturday during the Ch. 8 11 p.m. news, no sports anchor was on the air. The news anchor gave the Rays score with a quick highlight before going to a feature about rafting in Calgary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
That was the extent of its sportscast. No other scores were given, no other highlights shown.
On weeknights, sports news on local stations rarely is more than two to three minutes, with only an occasional feature-type story.
Though it's easy to point to the Internet and ESPN as being the death knells for local sports TV, Crippen has another theory:
"The weather. Weather has become a dominant part of local news. You see all these local stations pouring millions of dollars into weather equipment, and you see how they promote weather in commercials and talk about their radar systems. It's become a big part of the half-hour newscast.''
It's easy to connect the dots. Stations spend gobs of money on weather-forecasting equipment. They want to get the most out of that money. So they devote more time to weather reports.
Crippen believes there is a direct correlation between the decrease of time and resources for sports and the increase in them for weather.
"It used to be that sports had five minutes and weather had two,'' Crippen said. "Now weather has five and sports has two. And I'm not saying it's wrong. Obviously, stations are doing what they believe is best for the viewer. But I believe weather and sports have changed places on local news.''
Ch. 28 has four full-time meteorologists and two on-air sports personalities, its website says. Ch. 8 has one full-time sports anchor and four on weather.
"That's true that weather has become bigger at the expense of sports," Keck said, "and I can understand when there's a major weather story breaking, like a hurricane or a severe storm. But there are lots of days in Florida when it's 92 degrees, sunny, with a 40 percent chance of afternoon showers. Do we need five minutes for that?''
Keck also wonders how ESPN could lead to the demise of local sportscasts but the Weather Channel hasn't killed local weather segments.
Maybe because viewers want an emphasis on local weather?
"And that's my point,'' Keck said. "If you give people local sports news, they'll watch.''
Tampa Bay stations refuse to say they've given up the battle against the Internet and ESPN even though many veteran (read: higher-paid) anchors such as Keck and Peterson are no longer on TV.
Bright House Sports Network has a half-hour sportscast each night, hosted by Riley. But only Bright House cable customers get the network.
Ch. 13 has the biggest sports presence and still produces a Bucs postgame show and a Friday night high school football show. It has not cut its sports staff, which is led by Carter, the most recognized and longest-tenured name in local sports TV.
Ch. 10 sports has veteran Dave Wirth and filled a position left open when veteran Angela Jacobs left this month. Ch. 8, owned by Media General, has tried a new way to supplement its sports coverage by getting analysis and reports from sports staff writers at the Tampa Tribune, which Media General also owns.
"But the old days, like we knew them, are gone,'' Crippen said. "And that's too bad, really, because we told some great stories back then. They really were the golden days.''