ESPN: Changing the Way Americans Think About Sports

Thirty years ago, the culture of American sports took a new course. An idea shouldered by a former sports communication executive, along with his son and other partners, would go on to transform the way we consume, analyze and interpret the world of athletics, and would influence international sport culture as well. While sports have always acted as a medium for those looking to escape the drudgeries of work, a way to channel negative emotions into something engaging and entertaining, ESPN presented a new opportunity for fans: an all-encompassing cable network for not only sports itself but also for the culture surrounding sports.,

On some level, the word “sport” has always been synonymous with the word “entertainment.” Prior to 1979––the year ESPN was created––newspapers, radio stations and local television networks covered athletics, but that coverage wasn’t accompanied by all the bells and whistles we are accustomed to today.

Since ESPN began, the company has slowly ingrained itself into the culture of sports, dictating and driving the way we consume it. Now, so much of what we do as fans — root for our favorite team on TV, read about athletes online, listen to game analysis on the radio — is intertwined with ESPN’s brand.

Today, you can attribute the continued growth of the far-reaching media empire of ESPN due in part to their early recognition of a phrase that is consistently reiterated among devoted fanatics: sports are the ultimate reality television show which arrives complete with many elements that programs such as Survivor and American Idol try to manufacture. The great advantage of sports is that producers don’t need to make up the drama and the tension between athletes, the elation a crowd feels when their favorite team scores, or the uncertainty of the outcome.

This past September ESPN turned 30 and in celebration is running a documentary series called 30 for 30 that will air through 2010, focusing on 30 significant sports stories over the past 30 years filmed by 30 acclaimed directors. Among them is Peter Berg (who directed Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom and Hancock) who tells the story of Wayne Gretzky’s move to the Los Angeles Kings and Barry Levinson (who directed The Natural, Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam) who gives us the account of a marching band that helped keep the spirit of professional football alive in Baltimore after the Colts moved to Indianapolis.

The idea of broadcasting sports 24 hours a day, seven days a week into America’s living rooms originated in June 1978. A man by the name of Bill Rasmussen was initially looking to establish a local sports network to broadcast the New England Whalers hockey team (Rasmussen had previously worked for the team as communications director) along with University of Connecticut athletics.

However, a month later Rasmussen and his partners decided to scrap the original concept, instead opting for a nationally televised, 24-hour sports channel. Backed by financing from the Getty Oil Company, Rasmussen acquired a parcel of land in Bristol, Connecticut, a town 20 minutes west of Hartford, which became ESPN headquarters. When the network began broadcasting on 7 September 1979 the station consisted of one 10,000 square foot building and three satellite dishes. Today the Bristol campus stretches out over a 116-acre site housing a dozen buildings. “If you love sports… if you really love sports, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to sports heaven,” said original ESPN anchor Lee Leonard during the network’s premiere. Early programming was eclectic: the Slow-Pitch Softball World Series was broadcast as the first official sporting event on the network while other sports covered included kickboxing, racquetball, Irish cycling and Australian Rules football. Inclusion of athletics unfamiliar to most Americans reflected ESPN’s need to fill air time with whatever programming was available, but introduced many Americans to these sports while also drawing an audience of expats and paving the way for ESPN’s overseas expansion that would occur a few years down the road.

Three events in the ’80s solidified ESPN’s position as a major player in television sports. First, the station was purchased by ABC in 1984 which provided increased budgets to improve the sets and hire big-name announcers (prior to ESPN, ABC was one of the first networks to have a nationally televised show that covered sports — ABC’s Wide World of Sports). Second, in 1987 ESPN became the first cable company to win a television contract with the NFL, demonstrating that the network posed serious competition for broadcasting athletics (the network’s involvement in the NFL Draft, televised for the first time in 1980, also helped ESPN become a viable television entity).

But the event that most established ESPN as a big-time cable network was their role in broadcasting the news following an earthquake that occurred during the 1989 World Series. There was no turning back from that point on, as ESPN would become the source for everything sports.

The 1989 earthquake began with a violent jolt; a loud rumbling that shook the ground as vibrations traveled through the seats at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The 65,000 fans attending Game Three of the World Series soon realized that this disturbance was anything but ordinary and there were radio reports that sections of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, as well as the Nimitz Freeway had collapsed; the California Bay Area was in complete disarray. The Loma Prieta Earthquake would register a 7.1 on the Richter scale and kill 63 people in the process.

Local news networks in the Bay Area lost their television feed within a few seconds of the quake, which ordinarily would have delayed many people outside of the Bay Area from getting word of the disaster. However, because ABC, who was broadcasting that year’s Series, owned ESPN, the local affiliate had a microwave feed from the production truck beaming coverage back to the 24-hour sports network. For those who had cable, this resulted in ESPN providing coverage on the events taking place, raising their visibility among many people who were not necessarily huge sports fans. On top of that, critics who had originally doubted the viability of cable television began seeing things differently.

No Medium is an Obstacle

No Medium is an Obstacle

With millions of fans consuming the company’s various mediums every month, arguing about sports has become more visible than ever.

By the ’90s the now-familiar amalgam of sports and entertainment became the new norm. ESPN played a major role in promoting this mixing of styles as their programming featured highlight reels and player profiles as well as live coverage: the focus on individual players helped establish many athletes as household names. In addition, the fact that ESPN subscribers could watch games from all over the country meant that many players became well-known outside their home market which made them effective marketing tools for national and international companies. This resulted in a dramatic increase in both the number and size of endorsement deals offered to these newly-minted stars.

ESPN also led the expansion of national sports programming to other media. ESPN Radio began broadcasting in 1992, the television station ESPN2 in 1993 and perhaps most noticeably, the web site launched in 1995. Today, 20.5 million users return to the site each month making it the most popular sports site on the Internet.

ESPN continues to adapt to the new media environment through its website and incorporation of fan feedback. However, new media has also affected the network’s television content. Today, ESPN assumes that fans have already seen highlights from the night before so SportsCenter now includes more analysis and debate than in previous years. Following the success of Pardon the Interruption (which features sportswriter Mike Wilbon and former sportswriter Tony Kornheiser arguing about the day’s sports events), the broadcast schedule added additional debate/opinion shows.

Now an entirely new generation of sports fans is growing up in the era of debate. Who is better, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant? Do you think baseball players should automatically be banned for taking steroids? Did Chad Ochocinco take his touchdown dance too far? These are just some of the thousands of topics that are discussed between fans of all ages, day in and day out, at the water cooler or during lunch at school. While debate and analysis was always a part of the game, ESPN has brought it to the forefront of its programming. With millions of fans consuming the company’s various mediums every month, arguing about sports has become more visible than ever.

This is not to say that the company hasn’t faced its fair share of bumps along the way. Take for example a recent incident in which Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct. ESPN was among the last media outlets to report these accusations, fueling complaints that the network held the story since the Steelers had won the Super Bowl the prior year and were one of the NFL’s most beloved franchises.

Recognizing the importance of maintaining good relationships with its fan base, ESPN had created the title of ombudsman back in 2005, appointing former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon to the position for a 21-month period. Following Solomon was former New York Times sports editor Le Anne Schreiber, who was then succeeded by the current ESPN ombudsman, veteran television producer Don Ohlmeyer.

Ohlmeyer’s initial column online included feedback about the Roethlisberger incident from Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. He explained that ESPN’s delay in reporting the accusations was based on the damaging nature of such accusations and the difficulty of the accused ever clearing their name while not directly addressing the issue of why other networks reported the charges several days earlier.

The main message of this incident is not whether ESPN was right or wrong, but that many sports fans regard the network as a news source and hold it to standards similar to other news outlets. It also pointed out the active role that sports fans take regarding coverage of their favorite sports: they are no longer passive recipients of coverage but active participants in the process.

Now, the ESPN empire continues to expand through ESPNDB (aka ESPN Database), an online project that will act as a large-scale sports encyclopedia for fans looking for history on their favorite players and teams. The company has also begun launching websites in local markets like Chicago, Dallas and Boston. On top of that, in August 2009, ESPN started a broadcast network in the U.K. In fact, the international reach of ESPN is also evident in the fact that its flagship program SportsCenter is available in 13 local versions broadcast in eight different languages: Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese.

ESPN has exerted far-reaching effects on popular culture, effecting not only sport coverage but also movies (in addition to the 30 for 30 series, ESPN has produced made-for-television movies such as A Season on the Brink, which looked at Coach Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers during the 1985-86 season) shows (the series Playmakers, which dramatized the lives of professional football players, aired in 2003) and books (The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s Sportscenter). But its influence remains greatest in shaping and structuring the way we consume sports. No one can forsee what directions sports coverage will take in the future, but it’s a good bet that ESPN will be a major influence in shaping that coverage.