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August 17, 2004

ESPN: More Has Not Been Enough

FROM THE 25th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS OF ESPN come accolades, atta-boys and criticisms for the media entity that has caused a sea change in the way sports fans view—no, experience—sports.

Spawned in 1979 in unlikely Bristol CT (a suburb three towns distant from Hartford) as a cable outlet for New England Whalers NHL hockey, the upstart cable network stumbled accidentally into total sports programming. There was no master plan, and little thought about SportsCenter, edgy reporting, international viewership or any of the other dozens of ESPN invented--or inspired—programming innovations.

It was catch-as-catch-can, with improvisation and ad-libbing the norm. Struggle they did, but after a few years ESPN hit stride into a full gallop that has allowed them to create yawning gaps of distance from everyone else.

And the rest has been history.

In celebration of its 25th, the network currently has a feature called “Old School” wherein they have invited back to the sports desk after lo those many years. The feature has been very well accepted.

Born just yesterday in 1979, ESPN has accumulated impressive viewership figures. Now accessible in 82% of the USA's 108 million TV households, ESPN will offer 2293 live or taped events in 2004.

ESPN’s 2003 research has tracked an average of 94 million Americans consuming ESPN media every week. The average time with ESPN media is 50 minutes a day, or 5˝ hours a week.

Furthermore, ESPN now airs more than 1000 college events a year, including 21 men's and women's championships.

ESPN's rights fees for football and basketball have helped fund college athletic programs, including minor sports and women's sports. ESPN's contract for the NCAA women's tournament brings in $200 million through 2013.

"From a media and technical perspective, it's hard to identify one other entity that has had a more pervasive effect on college football and basketball than ESPN," says Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

Much has been made of ESPN’s irreverent on-air style. Dozens of ESPN commentators behind desks (and out in locker rooms and stadiums) have become personalities unto themselves.

Viewers as much tuned in for the personalities as anything.

ESPN has adeptly used these personalities to create talk shows sandwiching the big events, as it does with the NCAA basketball tournament and BCS bowls. And it packages lesser followed events, like college bowls or conference basketball championships, into weeklong TV events.

Furthermore, putting personalities behind a desk is relatively inexpensive programming option (compared to league rights fees).

The power of ESPN’s list of personalities turned famous is impressive, including Bob Ley, Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, Dick Vitale, Mel Kiper Jr., Lee Corso, Gayle Gardner and Linda Cohn. Plus Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Mike Lupica and Andy Katz. And Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark and Sal Paolantonio. The list goes on and on.

Celebrating its 25th birthday has provoked philosophic conjecture about the future. The media giant is still in a growth mode.

High on the probability list is a consideration of a college sports network (named ESPNU?).

Says ESPN’s Chris Berman, who has been with the network from its inception, "I don't know what the future is, but I do know we'll be at the forefront. We've had 20/20 vision, and I don't see our eyesight getting bad at all."

More has not been enough.

(this 547 word excerpt—with accompanying commentary--has been distilled from a 1992 word article from USA TODAY of 8-17-04)