BRISTOL, Conn. BRISTOL, Conn. — In the world of sports, initials signify dominance: Think Hall of Famers such as MJ and LT and all-stars such as TO and AI.
The most recognizable and powerful initials in the sports world, however, don’t belong to Michael Jordan, Lawrence Taylor, Terrell Owens or Allen Iverson.
They instead represent a company in Bristol, Conn., that once was responsible just for airing 24/7 coverage of games, highlights and news but now is perhaps the most powerful force in sports.
Now in its 27th year, ESPN, or Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, has become a multibillion-dollar behemoth, a standard offering for nearly every cable and satellite company in America. Moreover, the network no longer is just a broadcaster of events and news but is an essential partner to nearly every sports league.
With six domestic cable channels, Web sites, magazines and radio networks, ESPN already is the largest sports media company in the world.
Over the past several years, it also has emerged as a player in the world of “new media,” striking deals to add live sporting events and highlights on the Internet, IPods and wireless phones.
“ESPN has a lot of stuff, and they have a lot of qualities of a great brand,” said Rob Frankel, an independent branding analyst based in Los Angeles. “One of the signs of a healthy brand is that others want to follow it. And I don’t think people are duplicating it very well.”
At its core, ESPN still is a television company. The original cable channel is available in 92.3 million homes, more than any other cable network, and sister channel ESPN2 is available to 91.7 million cable and satellite subscribers. ESPNClassic, ESPNews and the Spanish-language ESPNDeportes are available to a combined 123 million households.
ESPN continues to grow overseas, operating 31 networks serving 194 countries in 12 languages.
The operation skeptics predicted would fail now is celebrating 10 years as part of Walt Disney Co., one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates. (Disney owns 80 percent of ESPN, with the remaining 20 percent controlled by the Hearst Corp.)
Analysts expect revenues for ESPN to exceed $5 billion this year and reach $7 billion by 2008.
The name of the sports network is so recognizable that the network struck a deal with ABC, another Disney property, to give all programs once carried under the name of ABC Sports a new label: “ESPN on ABC.”
“We’re very blessed,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming, acquisitions and strategy. “We have a brand that resonates with sports fans.”
Wherever fans are