Few faithful fans of ESPN probably know that the acronym originally stood for “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.” Fewer still would know that ESPN was started with Getty Oil money, and that the network almost went out of business in its early days. (For the inside story, read the book ESPN: The Uncensored History by Michael J. Freeman.)
But that’s in the past. Today, ESPN is a brand franchise of gargantuan proportions: a media empire that includes not only cable television’s leading sports network, but also such properties as a radio network, a magazine, a website, mobile offerings, a Spanish-language network, and “ESPN ZONE” restaurants—more than fifty individual business entities. Not to mention the global reach of ESPN International, serving over 190 countries and territories.
ESPN is a brand that did more than just create spin-offs. It is widely credited with changing the manner in which sports were covered and consumed. In fact, some enthusiasts have expressed their love for the brand by actually naming their children ESPN (pronounced Espen). Creating a cultural shift is what makes a brand immortal. ESPN created a brand category of one that still has no real competition.
When ESPN was launched in 1979, sports television coverage was a world of brief video clips and sound bites. Sports coverage was pretty much relegated to the end of a newscast. One of the reporters would read the scores of local teams’ games and that was about it.
ESPN changed all that by taking sports very seriously. Its SportsCenter show paved the way for long-format sports coverage on a national basis. ESPN management also wisely understood from the outset that there was a big wide world of sports beyond the borders of the United States. As early as 1983, ESPN began distributing sports programming internationally. In 1987, ESPN scored a double coup by first broadcasting the America’s Cup live from Australia, and later signing the first cable contract with the NFL (National Football League).
With its core brand established, ESPN then began a spin-off strategy. First there was ESPN International, and then ESPN Radio. Next came ESPN2—after all, if a single television network can’t cover all the sports, why not add another one?
In the 1990s, ESPN launched its website, ESPN News, the ESPN Classic channel, and ESPN magazine. The company also conceived its first non-media venture, opening the flagship ESPN ZONE restaurant in Baltimore. By the end of the decade, ESPN was all of twenty years old.
Things haven’t slowed down much in the 21st Century, either. In 2001, ESPN acquired Bass, the largest fishing organization in the world. In 2002, ESPN became the first network to televise all four major professional sports—MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL. In 2003, ESPN began to offer Pay-per-View service, and in 2004, ESPN introduced a 24-hour Spanish language sports network, ESPN Deportes. Also in 2004, the company started to publish ESPN Books.
In 2005, ESPNU, a 24-hour network devoted to college sports, was launched. Also that year, ESPN scored one of its biggest plays when it agreed to acquire Monday Night Football for eight years, starting in 2006. By the middle of 2005, ESPN, along with the Discovery Channel, became the first network in cable television history to surpass 90 million US subscribers.
Whew, tired yet? There’s more… like ESPN’s eight-year agreements with both Major League Baseball and NASCAR in 2005, and ESPN’s eight-year agreement with the NBA in 2007. In late 2007, ESPN announced that it would be carrying the early rounds of the Masters, golf’s version of the World Series, which had been carried by USA Network since 1982.
ESPN’s foray into wireless is perhaps one of the few areas in which the brand couldn’t quite extend itself. ESPN made an unsuccessful attempt to launch its own branded wireless phone service, “Mobile ESPN,” but shut it down by the end of 2006. Instead, ESPN is licensing its content to other carriers. But there are still other new frontiers—in early 2007, ESPN announced ESPN Mobile TV, its first channel on a wireless service.
All the while, through all the spin-offs, those stylized letters—E S P N—have been as boldly prominent as the logo of any world-class brand.
ESPN applies its branding expertise to other sports brands as well. In January 2008, ESPN presented the “Under Armour High School All-American Game,” a game that was created by, and originally named after, ESPN’s college station, ESPNU. ESPN created the successful “X Games,” which have resulted in a profitable line of branded apparel and accessories, Moto X and BMX bikes, skateboards, and protective gear. ESPN has produced interactive gaming experiences, primarily in conjunction with EA Sports. Joint branding efforts are in the works, such as “ESPN on ABC.” (Both ESPN and ABC are owned by Disney.)
ESPN is a brand that’s good for the bottom line, too. According to Disney, ESPN helped boost the company’s cable networks operating income by $577 million in 2007. The company said: “The growth at ESPN was primarily due to higher affiliate revenues, driven by contractual rate increases and subscriber growth, and higher advertising revenues.” Obviously, ESPN is a big winner.