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The Collaborative, Imperfect Process Behind the SportsCenter Top 10

DaDaDa, DaDaDa. We all know the jingle that signals the SportsCenter Top 10, but how does ESPN put it together? Boardroom explores.

Linda Cohn has been a SportsCenter regular for decades, making her first appearance hosting the ESPN staple in 1992 and hosting more episodes than any other anchor in company history. And while the show has evolved over the years, at this point, the veteran sportscaster could run through a show with her eyes closed.

Figuring out which football games she and her co-host are hitting after a long Saturday? Preparing a special feature for the hockey segment of the night’s show? Interviewing an MMA athlete ahead of a big bout? That’s the easy part.

Things get exciting — for Cohn, the production team, and the viewer — when the show nears the end of the hour and the SportsCenter Top 10 plays hit the screen.

“You never know what highlights are gonna be in the Top 10,” Cohn told Boardroom. “Just having that unexpected part of it has kept it fresh over the years. It just doesn’t get old.”

Wait, even the anchors don’t know what the plays will be in real-time? That can’t be true, right?

“You gotta be quick on your feet,” SportsCenter anchor Stan Verrett added. “To add to the entertainment value of it. You have to kind of read and react. It helps to have some wit on your side. … I think a part of the fun of it is experiencing these plays together with the viewer for the first time.”

So, that begs the question: How does ESPN compile the SportsCenter Top 10 every night? We know the anchors aren’t (solely) behind the selection of the plays, so what is the process of compiling the list and finalizing the order? Let’s dive in.

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It’s a simple concept, but every night, ESPN’s production room is tasked with scouring the sporting world to compile what they believe, as a collective unit, are the best 10 plays throughout that day.

Back in the days before social media, this mostly involved professional sports, as those were the only ones with the necessary reach to get back to the SportsCenter offices. Just ask Johann Castillio, the Vice President of Studio Shows for ESPN who has over 20 years of experience producing flagship shows such as NFL Countdown, SportsCenter, SC on the Road, and NBA studio shows.

“I even date myself to like, when we were working on tape, right? And it wasn’t a server, you know — you’re rolling on feeds in the old screening room, which was just tape decks all over the place,” he said. “And then the PAs would just yell, ‘I got a top 10, I got a top play!’ A supervisor would run over there, we’d look at it.

“It’s much more intimate. Everybody at night, whatever comes in, let’s just all communicate amongst each other in that room. And then the process is similar in that you’re still getting other people’s opinions back in the day. … You really just rely on what’s being brought in and there isn’t much influence from the outside.”

SportsCenter Top 10
Photo by Kelly Backus / ESPN Images

But now, with the presence of Twitter (errr…X) and other social media platforms, the production room is able to keep tabs on, well, everything. Of course, the major sports still consume the bulk of the Top 10 spots, but now, high schools, colleges, and even intramural leagues are able to tag SportsCenter or use certain hashtags to garner consideration for a Top 10 nod.

Kelly Millin is currently a producer for SC@Night at ESPN. Having held a number of positions since joining as a production assistant in 2013, she plays a major role in facilitating the discovery, ranking, and production of the SportsCenter Top 10 plays.

“In the nine to 10 years that I’ve been [at ESPN], social media has grown and grown and grown,” Millin said. “The more people have started really going to Twitter and going to different social channels to talk about the shows and give us [potential top plays], that has definitely helped.

“I would say I don’t really know what it’s like without Twitter. The more it’s become the go-to place, that’s made it a lot easier for us to be able to have access to a lot.”

As with any industry, some times of year are slower than others. For instance, in the fall when MLB is in the middle of its playoff season, the NFL is a few weeks old, and the NBA is set to tip-off, all mixed in with the various submissions and tagging mentioned above, there are options aplenty for the top 10.

But what about in the summer? Say, during a year in which there are no World Cups or Olympics. High schools are on break, as are most colleges. The NFL and the NBA are in their offseasons, leaving mostly baseball and the WNBA to choose from when it comes to making the top 10.

“I always say the 10 best plays are the 10 best plays, but we also try to get a variety in,” Millin said. “I would say with the summer, we definitely would rely on the hashtag and hopefully you get some fun, I don’t know, ultimate Frisbee and disc golf and some of those high school plays or something.”

Discovery is half the battle in this production process. But now comes the fun part — the actual ranking of the plays.

First off, let’s get this out of the way: It’s all subjective. The PAs, producers, and higher-ups all know this. (The only ones that might not realize it’s subjective are some of the viewers out there…)

So naturally, there are going to be moments of disagreement within the production team. Not in a bad way by any means, but rather, such instances create “healthy, constructive conversation,” says Deryk Cumagun, Coordinator Producer at ESPN overseeing the screening/highlight process.

The 22-year ESPN vet added: “On any given night, it’s such a subjective thing that, who knows what plays are there. … We all have to come through to a conclusion in a healthy way. … I don’t want to speak for you. This is your vision, you know? Or else, then, why do we have you?”

“Top 10 kind of brings the room together.”

SportsCenter Top 10
Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

Those last couple of lines from Cumagun really speak to the collaborative process of creating the SportsCenter Top 10 plays from start to finish. Castillo agrees.

“There’s a lot of collaboration, especially when it comes to No. 1 and No. 2 … I would never just be like, ‘That absolutely has to be No. 1. You’re wrong,'” Castillo said. “There’s a lot of talk among the circle and just the other PAs and a lot of it is really just reaction … and we just take the consensus as a whole.”

And once they got one ranking out there for the first SC of the night, their job isn’t over. What about those late-night West Coast baseball games? Or Pac-12 After Dark? (RIP) Sometimes, these are the contests that produce the biggest plays, making it harder to fill the 10 slots for the 11 p.m. ET SportsCenter.

Of course, adding more plays to the mix in real-time can add more “constructive conversation” when having to adjust what was already produced. But that’s when the subjective fun starts, Millin says.

“Sometimes I like spurring those healthy debates,” she continued. “I think you can spark some fun conversations of, ‘I would’ve done this’ or ‘How come you didn’t do that?'”

Castillo, Cumagun, and Millin all play significant roles, but they are hardly the only ones involved. As Cumagun has learned over his 20-plus years at ESPN, building a trust and rapport with everyone helps produce the best product possible.

And this includes the on-air anchors, who rely on the producers to feed them accurate information. It’s a job those in the production room do not take lightly.

“That confidence with the anchor, if the anchor knows that you cut it or that I’m in the room, or that the co-producer is the one overseeing it, that comes out of their mouth,” Cumagun said. “So when he says, you know, my last name incorrectly, that goes to [the anchor], not me who cut it. So that’s a really important thing, too. While you’re making an impact on that high school kid, it’s only so great until you say his or her name wrong. And then it’s just like, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’

“I think that’s a big, real stressful thing there that I think a lot of us go through, whether you’re cutting it or overseeing it.”

But as Cumagun mentioned, when everything is done right — which is the case most of the time — it can make a great impact on that high school kid from North Dakota or that small-school college athlete who went viral for making a highlight catch.

Simply put: The people love it.

“But that’s the one thing [Top 10 plays] that, universally across the board, most people might stop and just watch the rest of it,” Cumagun said. “Because they know it’s daily and it’s quick. … I go to my 13-year-old’s practice and someone makes a diving cash, you hear that ‘Da Da Da, Da Da Da,’ that’s top 10.”

SportsCenter is a daily challenge for everyone involved — vice presidents, producers, coordinators — but especially for anchors, as it’s the most familiar uncertainty of their job. They may not know which plays are coming until the moment, but the process and production — with slight tweaking — of creating the SportsCenter Top 10 have been in place for years, as have many of the folks who put it all together.

And why the SportsCenter Top 10 remains one of the most popular of its kind all these years later is simple: It works.

“The concept is so simple but yet so effective that it really doesn’t need adjusting,” Stan said. “It’s one of those things that I think people have come to expect and have come to really enjoy about SportsCenter over the years. … The concept never gets stale because the plays that make up the Top 10 are new and fresh every night. It’s comforting in its sameness, but then it’s also exciting and it’s different every night.”

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About The Author
Griffin Adams
Griffin Adams
Griffin Adams is an Editor at Boardroom. He's had previous stints with The Athletic and Catena Media, and has also seen his work appear in publications such as USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and MLB.com. A University of Utah graduate, he can be seen obnoxiously cheering on the Utes on Saturdays and is known to Trust The Process as a loyal Philadelphia 76ers fan.