- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

BRISTOL, Conn. — Behind the boo-yahs, diaper dandies and Bert “Be Home” Blylevens, there is a plan for ESPN. An extremely serious plan.

That plan, for something supposedly as centered around fun and games as sports, is plenty militaristic in tone. It involves an overwhelming marshaling of resources, carefully plotted execution and a clear objective of dominance.

The plan, in short, is literally to be wherever sports fans are and in whatever form they could possibly choose.

ESPN, celebrating its 25th anniversary tomorrow, has well been on its way to omnipresence for years. After the TV network’s humble beginnings in rural Connecticut, ESPN spent the 1990s mushrooming via the creation of ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNEWS, ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Zone restaurants and ESPN Radio.

A second and even more diverse wave of expansion, however, is approaching like what one ESPN executive called “a tsunami.” The company is pouring tens of millions of dollars into high-definition TV and supplying video content over broadband Internet connections and to wireless devices. ESPN is also considering a rollout of several new networks, including ones devoted to extreme and women’s sports and college athletics. Already green-lighted are a daily “Access Hollywood”-type celebrity show involving athletes and a late-night talk show.

“We must be totally accessible in every single platform made to man for any consumer or any sports fan that has an appetite for sports,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president. “We have to continue to be a step ahead of the curve. It’s what our fans expect of us.”

Beyond simply branching out into new platforms, ESPN executives are rapidly refining their ability to sell integrated advertising buys across their various media. Much more pertinent to the average fan, it also means a seamless — some would say relentless — cross-promotion and direction of people from ESPN on TV to the radio in their car to the Internet to their cell phone or PDA and back again to another bevy of shows on TV.

For a company that made its mark by irreverently bucking corporate traditions forged on broadcast TV and one that, in the words of Chris Berman, still considers itself “the little engine that could,” this is a major culture change for one of America’s best loved consumer entities.

The shift already has yielded 10 straight quarters of ratings growth and a glowing, profitable position in an otherwise muddled corporate picture for Walt Disney Co., ESPN’s parent company. More than 94million Americans — about a third of the country’s population — come in contact with an ESPN product each week.

But the aggressive expansion, coupled with several tweaks and changes to its flagship TV program, “SportsCenter,” has left many viewers cold and prompted an unprecedented torrent of negative publicity for ESPN this year. The tried-and-true source for sports highlights, games and analysis is now regularly challenging viewers with musical acts between the scores, scripted dramas, game shows and self-branded awards galas.

Among the press criticism heaped up in recent months:

• “‘SportsCenter’ exists primarily as an infomercial, its anchors reduced to barkers and shills.” [New York Post].

• “The current anchors fall back on straight-up impersonation and on catchphrases that are stale the moment they’re first uttered.” [Slate].

• “ESPN is responsible for taking the lesson of Howard Cosell — that an announcer can be a celebrity bigger than the athletes he is covering — and running it into the ground.” [Chicago Sun-Times].

Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who studies the history and culture of television, says the criticism is similar to what MTV experienced in the 1990s when it shifted away from music videos.

“ESPN, with maybe the exception of MTV and Nickelodeon, is the most established tradition out there in cable television. It’s more than a channel to a lot of people. It’s a lifestyle. It’s like chocolate or heroin to some people,” Thompson said. “So when you mess with that tradition, the backlash is fairly predictable.”

Anniversary blitz

Amid these choppy waters of public opinion, ESPN is plowing ahead with a full-throttle celebration of its silver anniversary. Since June, ESPN has inundated its audiences with lists of all sorts of the best and worst of sports in the last quarter-century. There is a two-hour retrospective airing tonight. A behind-the-scenes ESPN book was released last week, complete with a companion DVD with a selection of “SportsCenter” commercials.

Far from some quickly slapped together commemoration, all the hoopla is the result of nearly two years of careful planning.

The overall tone of the look back, as expected, is gauzy-eyed and at many times delves headfirst into embarrassing self-worship. But it also appropriately notes how much ESPN has transformed the landscape of pro and major college sports. Before ESPN, there was no such thing as March Madness as we know it. Ditto for fantasy leagues and sabermetrics. Highlights were something jammed on the last two minutes of the local news and only if the weatherman didn’t run long. Numerous entities, such as NASCAR, the NHL and every women’s sport, existed only as small, regional operations, far removed from any true national prominence. Skateboarding as a competition sport didn’t even exist at all.

ESPN is now the first network in TV history to have rights deals with all four major sports leagues at the same time.

“You have to remember the big picture of what cable TV was in 1979,” said Berman, who arrived at ESPN a few months after it began. “If somebody said I got cable TV, it was like ‘What do you mean, cable TV?’ It’s not that long ago, but if you think about 1979, it is a long time ago. Three, four million homes had cable TV in 1979. Now if you don’t have cable, you wonder, what part of Upper Slabovia are you really living in?”

Dark times

The self-congratulations, however, ignore a recent dark period for ESPN and the genesis for the current, Shermanesque march of expansion. In the winter after the terrorist attacks of September11, ESPN ratings, particularly for “SportsCenter,” fell by double-digit percentages. The network, to many observers, had lost a lot of the hip edge and relevance forged in the 1980s and 1990s.

“That was a real wake-up call for ESPN, [president] George Bodenheimer and the rest of the senior staff,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN senior vice president of research and sales development. “It was time that we decided to take stock of everything, and let’s figure out what’s going on here.”

That slide prompted a quick and comprehensive retrenching. Several lagging programs were scrapped. Promotional strategies were reworked. And within months, ESPN emerged with its Original Entertainment division, producing a movie version of “Season on the Brink,” later followed by a litany of now-familiar programs, such as “Pardon the Interruption,” “Dream Job,” “Cold Pizza,” and “Around the Horn.”

Howls of protest accompanied each show’s debut. And some ventures built on the same take-no-prisoners mentality, such as “Playmakers” and hiring political commentator Rush Limbaugh as an analyst on “NFL Countdown,” failed loudly within a matter of weeks. But ESPN considers the new strategy indispensable to its future direction.

“Are we trying new things? Yes. But to me, if you’re not trying new things with 5 or 10 percent of whatever it is you’re managing, you’re not on a growth curve,” Bodenheimer said. “And a company like ESPN, we feel like we must continue to grow.”

The ratings slide also led to a bolstering of ESPN’s research department. The network monitors its brand equity as close as any heavyweight on the Fortune 500, supplementing standard measures of success, such as ratings and focus group data, with its own branded research methods that also are sold to other companies.

ESPN conducts six or seven focus groups a month and thousands of telephone surveys and manages an Internet polling panel of more than 8,000 members, all in the name of garnering constant feedback on its programming efforts and the value of its brand. It also is developing reliable ways to measure TV viewership in venues not recorded by Nielsen Media Research, such as college campuses, bars and hotels.

While ESPN projects a goofy image through the popular “This Is SportsCenter” commercials, this strident commitment to calculation and deep audience research is much closer to the company’s true DNA.

“We’ve learned over time that we actually have this system to feed the fan, and it’s something we need to leverage a little bit more,” Bulgrin said.

That leveraging is where ESPN’s HDTV, wireless and Internet divisions step foremost into the breach. While each of the technologies remains in its infancy, the guiding principle in this area is to provide a narrowcast version of ESPN to counter the more macro-level view of sports provided on TV. ESPN.com and its broadband version allow for significant customization based on a user’s favorite sports, teams or players. Wireless devices like phones and PDAs, once they evolve into a truly portable version of the Internet, will allow many of the same functions.

“ESPN essentially has two options before it,” Thompson said. “They can be satisfied sitting in the catbird’s seat where they are as the No.1 sports brand on TV, or they can continue to try to grow, and growth is clearly their mandate. Everyone that is going to watch ESPN as it now stands has probably already discovered it. So that’s why you see all these new ventures and platforms. You run the risk of alienating the core audience. The bet is clearly to add more people and more than offset anybody you do lose.”

New competition

As ESPN grows ever larger, the network has pounded all of its primary competitors into submission or outright extinction. Time Warner tried its hand at national sports on cable TV via CNN/SI, only to pull the plug on that venture several years ago after failing to establish any true viewer loyalty, brand power or profits. Fox Sports Net made a far more concerted effort, starting several programs that either have been replicated or adapted on ESPN. But it, too, has retreated to a collection of regional operations that are much more focused on covering the teams in their own markets.

Dan Patrick, “SportsCenter” anchor and now host of his own show on ESPN Radio, says he sort of misses those competitors.

“I like the challenge we got from CNN or Fox. I think it made us better,” Patrick said. “But we don’t have that [anymore], and I think we learned our lesson that you have to be on your toes.”

But a new and potentially much more damaging set of competitors is emerging via league-owned TV networks. The NFL Network last year made a high-profile debut to join the 5-year-old NBA TV and quickly earned high marks for the quality and depth of its presentation. Major League Baseball owners last month approved a 10-year funding commitment for their own cable outlet and aim to be on TV by next year’s playoffs.

For now, the programming mix for each is studio shows, archival footage and preseason games. But once any of those leagues keeps a prominent chunk of its inventory of live regular season games for themselves — something widely expected by the time ESPN turns 50 — the relationship with ESPN promises to grow far more complicated.

“You’re in a fragmented environment, and they want to keep cutting off the pieces. But the people that are cutting off the pieces now are the major players that most consumers come to us for,” Shapiro said. “So I’m not sure how necessarily that’s an equation we’re supposed to embrace. If they’re going to be strictly supplementary and strictly supportive and strictly year-round programming, that’s good for our business. But when they start airing live, regular-season, exclusive market games on those networks, that’s bad for our business.”

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