Before there was The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or The Newsroom, there was Sports Night. Premiering in the fall of 1998, Aaron Sorkin's freshman foray into television told the story of a late-night sports news show and the personalities that made it run, both in front of and behind the camera. Here are 11 things you might not know about the two-season dramedy, on its 20th anniversary.
1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A BOOK.
Originally, it didn't occur to Sorkin to think about Sports Night as a television series. He thought it might make an interesting book, and his agent at the time suggested a movie might be better—"Kind of a Broadcast News set in a SportsCenter place," Sorkin explained to TV Guide. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories. I dismissed it, because it didn't occur to me to do a television series." A few years later, Sorkin found himself pitching the idea to ABC.
2. IT IS LOOSELY BASED ON SPORTSCENTER.
Shortly after Sports Night's premiere, Keith Olbermann—former co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter—couldn't help but notice the similarities between Sports Night’s fictional anchors Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (played by Peter Krause) and he and his SportsCenter co-host, Dan Patrick, respectively. After asking Sports Illustrated, "How much more of my life can these people borrow before they have to pay me?" Esquire sat Olbermann and Sorkin down together to hash it out. When Olbermann commented that "I have heard various stories about the origin of this series," Sorkin quickly confirmed that, "You are the origin. I sat in [a] hotel room for 13 months writing The American President. To keep me company, I would have SportsCenter on. I'd watch The Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan. As soon as I was done with The American President, I told [then-ABC head] Jamie Tarses, 'Send me off and let me write a pilot.'" Craig Kilborn has also long been rumored as part of the inspiration for Krause's McCall.
3. AARON SORKIN SPENT SOME TIME ON THE ESPN CAMPUS.
In order to research the series, Sorkin spent some time observing the goings-on at ESPN's main campus in Bristol, Connecticut. And it's there that he found the inspiration for Felicity Huffman's character, Dana Whitaker. "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," Sorkin said. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of Sports Night."
4. THE NETWORK INSISTED ON USING A LAUGH TRACK.
Given that Sports Night was a rather unconventional comedy, the network executives at ABC were worried that audiences wouldn’t get Sorkin’s sense of humor so they insisted on using a laugh track, much to everyone's dismay. "The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half-hour, and one of them was the laugh track," Sorkin told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "By the second season, they said, 'You don’t have to use it anymore.' On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible." Added co-star Joshua Malina: "Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, 'You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?'"
5. IT OVERLAPPED WITH THE WEST WING.
On September 22, 1999—exactly one year after Sports Night premiered—Sorkin's much beloved political drama, The West Wing, made its debut. While Sports Night struggled to find its audience (despite three Emmy wins and a Golden Globe nomination), The West Wing was an immediate hit, so much so that many people blame Sports Night's ultimate disappearance from the air after just two seasons on The West Wing. When ABC announced that it was canceling Sports Night, other channels—HBO and Showtime reportedly among them—came calling. But Sorkin decided that his attention would be better focused on The West Wing.
"While we received several intriguing offers for Sports Night to continue on another network, there were many other factors that were important for us to consider," Sorkin and his producing partner Thomas Schlamme said in a press statement. "We are tremendously proud of the two seasons' worth of episodes that aired on ABC and felt committed to reviving the show only if this creative integrity could continue. When we considered everything involved in making this happen, we felt it best for Sports Night to remain untarnished creatively."
6. JOSHUA MALINA WANTED TO PLAY DAN RYDELL.
Joshua Malina originally auditioned for the role of Dan Rydell. "I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan," Malina told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought it was perfect for me." But Sorkin knew he wanted Malina in the cast, so he decided to rewrite the role of researcher Jeremy Goodwin to Malina's strengths.
"Aaron called, and he was like, 'Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?,'" Malina recalled. "As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, 'I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?' And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, 'Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!'"
7. ROBERT GUILLAUME REALLY DID HAVE A STROKE.
In January 1999, Robert Guillaume, who played managing editor Isaac Jaffe, suffered a stroke while on the set and was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he insisted that "I haven't had a stroke. I can't have a stroke. Disney doesn't allow it. Not during business hours." In order to explain his absence from part of the first season, Sorkin wrote his stroke into the series. He returned at the end of season one. Guillaume passed away of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, just one month away from his 90th birthday.
8. CASEY MCCALL MADE A SPIN CITY CAMEO.
In 1999, Peter Krause made a cameo as Casey McCall in an episode of Spin City, which immediately preceded Sports Night on ABC's Tuesday night lineup. In the episode, Mike (Michael J. Fox's character) and his girlfriend watch the show-within-the-show version of Sports Night, which then segued into the evening's actual episode.
9. THE SHOW WASN'T LACKING IN CRITICAL ACCLAIM.
Though it struggled to find an audience, Sports Night was never lacking in critical acclaim. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards during its two-season run, and won three of them, including Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Thomas Schlamme (for the pilot). In 2000, Felicity Huffman scored a Golden Globe nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series - Comedy/Musical.
10. ITS "LOW" RATINGS WERE ACTUALLY PRETTY HIGH.
Though low ratings are often cited as the main reason for Sports Night's cancellation after two seasons, it averaged about 11.5 million viewers per week. If Sports Night were still on the air, it would be one of ABC's highest rated shows.
11. IN 2014, KEITH OLBERMANN CO-HOSTED WITH HIS ON-SCREEN ALTER EGO.
In 2014, Josh Charles reprised his role as Dan Rydell on The Big Show with Keith Olbermann. The pair reenacted Sports Night with highlights and witty banter, and allowed Olbermann to poke a little fun at Sorkin.