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The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) has become the dominant sports network on cable television. ESPN started when cable television was available to less than 10 percent of the population. ESPN's irreverent style, brilliant advertising, and excellent programming and business decisions have catapulted it into over 70 million homes in the United States, as well as broadcasting in over 150 countries around the world.

When ESPN first began showing sports programming 24 hours a day in 1979, most industry experts concluded it had little chance of survival. With a limited budget and no connections to major sports programming, ESPN was forced to run such oddities as Australian Rules football, college lacrosse matches, and other rarely watched sporting events. Unable to raise the money to carry football, baseball, or any of the other major sports, ESPN concentrated its efforts on its news programming. Resources were poured into Sportscenter, the flagship news show for the network. In addition, network executives turned college basketball games and the National Football League draft into television events.

As ESPN gained in popularity, more and more sports fans began to subscribe to cable simply to get access to its excellent news coverage. By 1983, demand for ESPN became so great that the network was the first basic cable network to demand an operating fee from cable franchisers. As cable television continued to expand exponentially throughout the United States, ESPN became an integral part of any basic cable package.

In 1987, the network made two moves that would prove to be its most brilliant. The first move was the acquisition of the rights to televise National Football League games on Sunday nights, which immediately put ESPN in the same category as the major broadcast networks for sports coverage. The addition of football dramatically increased the network's visibility in the sports marketplace, and drew millions of new viewers to their other shows.

The second move was the hiring of John Walsh, who would transform Sportscenter into the must-see sports show on television. Walsh brought his background as managing editor of the weekly news magazine U.S. News and World Report to Sportscenter, transforming it into a news broadcast about sports, rather than a sports broadcast. Walsh created a network that no longer simply showed highlights but also covered the news like any other major nightly news show. ESPN added investigative news coverage with Outside the Lines, a show that was to examine such controversial issues as racism and gambling in sports. A regular interview show, Up Close, was also created and it featured the greatest names in sports on a daily basis. Walsh created a news organization that covered sports at a level of detail never before seen on television.

Walsh endeavored to give ESPN its own personality, one that was humorous, intelligent, and absolutely in love with all types of sports. He hired anchors for Sportscenter that epitomized this personality, including the dominant personalities of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Patrick and Olbermann became the must-see anchors on ESPN, throwing out catch phrases, humor, and information at a rapidfire pace. Olbermann and Patrick's 11 p.m. edition of Sportscenter soon became known as the "Big Show" among sports fans, and the devotion the two received reached almost obsessive levels.

By the late 1980s, ESPN had become THE network for the serious sports fans and players alike. Professional athletes made it clear that making the highlight reel on Sportscenter was important to them. Fans held up signs at games addressed to the Sportscenter anchors using the catch phrase of the week. The focus on Sportscenter became so strong that the anchors could literally create a trend overnight. During one news broadcast, anchors Olbermann and Craig Killborn shouted the word "salsa!" every time someone scored a basket in college basketball. The very next night, college basketball fans throughout the country were seen holding up "Salsa!" signs whenever the home team made a basket. ESPN had clearly become a dominant cultural phenomenon.

In the 1990s, ESPN's influence grew even further. ESPN radio debuted in 1992, and ESPN2, a second all-sports network, began broadcasting in 1993. The expansion continued, and by 1995 ESPN Sportzone became a presence on the internet, the all-news network ESPNews began in 1996, and ESPN: The Magazine emerged as a major competitor to the industry giant Sports Illustrated in 1998. In addition, the network began selling licensed ESPN sportswear and other products. ESPN programming now reaches over 70 million households in the United States, one of only three cable channels to have achieved that mark, and ESPN2 is close to reaching it as well. The demand for ESPN programming is so high that the network now commands the highest operating fees and advertising rates on cable. Through saturation and careful marketing, ESPN has become virtually synonymous with sports in the United States.

Before ESPN began broadcasting, most sports coverage was limited to eight minutes on local news channels. Although the major broadcast networks would occasionally run half-hour sports news shows on the weekends, the shows were generally little more than compilations of highlight films. ESPN provided the serious sports fan with a wide variety of news and sports coverage that was unmatched on the airwaves. Fans tuned in to Sportscenter to see a full hour of highlights and analysis focused exclusively on sports, a level of detail never before available outside of the sports sections of major newspapers.

Although the level of coverage clearly made ESPN popular, volume is no substitute for quality. If Sportscenter had simply been another bland collection of highlight reels, the network would not be the success it is today. Clearly, a large part of the network's success is its ability to tap into the mind of the sports fan. ESPN designed its programming to appeal to the serious fan. Sportscenter runs several times during the day, from 5 a.m. to midnight, each show covering the latest news from the sporting world. In addition, the personnel have a clear love for the sports they cover, and this is made apparent to the viewer. Anchors constantly rattle off detailed histories, statistics, and biographies, demonstrating their level of knowledge. ESPN also has succeeded in attracting a broad audience to its programming. Although viewers are predominantly male, their coverage of women's sports, including basketball, soccer, and gymnastics, has drawn more and more women into the ranks of ESPN viewers.

Finally, the anchors are not afraid to inject humor into their coverage. Rather than resorting to the slapstick "blooper" reels so commonly seen on local network television, ESPN anchors interject far more cerebral humor into their coverage. This humor, including a willingness to make fun of themselves, created a bond between the anchors and the viewer. The inside jokes and catch phrases created by the anchors became a language of its own, known only to the serious sports fans of the world.

While there are many things that ESPN did to become successful, one must also recognize that the network came along at just the right time. The 1980s was a decade in which sports franchises around the country experienced a resurgence in popularity. The decade saw the emergence of some of the greatest sports figures of all time, including Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, and Barry Bonds. Fans were flocking to sporting events in greater numbers than ever before, and ESPN was a clear beneficiary of it. In a symbiotic way, the resurgent popularity of sports drew more fans to ESPN and, in turn, the network created fans for other sports. ESPN's regular coverage of college and professional basketball, professional hockey, and professional soccer was at least partially responsible for the phenomenal growth in attendance for all four sports.

ESPN remains the dominant force in the sports news industry. Other cable networks have attempted to clone its success, but none of them have achieved anything close to their ratings. As the sports industry continues to grow, ESPN will continue to capitalize on that growth.

—Geoff Peterson

Further Reading:

Carvell, T. "Prime Time Player." Fortune. March 2, 1998, 135-44.

"ESPN International at 15." Variety. January 19, 1998, special section.

Mandalese, J. "Cable TV." Advertising Age. April 13, 1998, 6-18.