ESPN stands for “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.” It is a cable and satellite network channel that serves millions of households in the United States, contributing to its enormous success. The first and only 24-hour sports cable channel, it’s the go-to destination for millions of American sports fans. It is unrivaled and almost seems to have a monopoly on the cable sports network field. Its ESPN International is also massively successful, operating in seven global regions.
Let us take a look back at ESPN’s roots, their early struggles and their ultimate achievement of their goals (pardon the pun) as the most successful sports cable/satellite channel.
Believe it or not, the outlook was not so promising when ESPN was founded in the late 1970s by Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott, and Ed Eagan who was an Aetna insurance agent. Bill was just dismissed from the professional ice hockey team the New England Whalers, but he was dead-set on forming a cable sports channel, which he originally envisioned to cover regional sports events, especially in Connecticut. It would initially be called ESP Network.
ESP Network becoming a corporation (despite not-so-bright predictions), 1978
Hearing about the new cable channel concept, representatives of cable operators – which ESP Network managed to nick through its sales pitch – gave it a less than enthusiastic response at the press conference, predicting that the network would falter. Nevertheless, the founders went on with their pursuit, incorporating ESP Network during the summer of 1978. Its headquarters were eventually established in Bristol, Connecticut, which still stands today.
ESP Network was also among the first in the United States to employ a form of television distribution called satellite communication, which was still a novel technology in the country. This enabled ESPN to continuously broadcast its programs nationwide on a 24-hour basis through a satellite feed.
ESPN’s official launch in 1979
ESP Network secured initial investments from various entities such as Getty Oil Company and Anheuser-Busch (for the advertising contract). To further establish its name, ESP Network also obtained rights from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to rebroadcast their college events, in particular collegiate basketball, which was really popular at that time. Getty Oil Company’s executive Stuart Evey was gradually taking over control of the company from the Rasmussens, eventually resulting into conflicts. Wanting to distinguish itself from the “big three-letter networks” (NBC, ABC and CBS), ESP Network renamed itself ESPN.
ESPN was officially launched on September 7, 1979, and SportsCenter was its flagship program. Initially broadcasting on a limited-time basis, ESPN began to conduct their programming 24/7 the following year.
ESPN’s acquisition by several companies, and expanding sports coverage; ESPN Radio
In 1984, ABC Network acquired ESPN from the Getty Oil Company. ABC retained an 80% share of ESPN, and the remaining 20% went to the cookies and biscuits company, Nabisco, which in turn sold its stake to Hearst Corporation in 1990, making it the new co-owner of ESPN. In 1986, ABC was acquired by Capital Cities Communications Inc., merging the two firms into Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
ESPN’s scope of sports coverage was continuously expanding, and its ascent was virtually unstoppable. In 1987, it began broadcasting National Football League (NFL) games; two years later they started to cover Major League Baseball series. It also branched out into radio, forming ESPN Radio in 1991 in partnership with the ABC Radio Network. ESPN2 was created in 1993 to cover alternative sports events such as poker, billiards and extreme games as part of its essential programming.
ESPN goes international; foray into publishing and HD television
The network got even bigger as ESPN International was created, and is now serving Asia, Brazil, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Oceania, Africa and the Middle East. In 1996, ESPN was acquired from Captial Cities/ABC Inc by Walt Disney Company, who remains ESPN’s parent company up to this day. ESPN launched ESPN Classic in 1995 to feature reruns past (and classic) sporting events, documentaries as well as movies with sports as the main theme. ESPN has continued to expand, launching other networks such as ESPNU (for collegiate sporting events), ESPNews, ESPN Plus, ESPN on ABC, ESPN UK, and ESPN America.
ESPN also branched out into the world of publishing as it launchedESPN: The Magazine.
Sports enthusiasts can now also enjoy a high-definition viewing experience as ESPN HD kicked off in 2003.
Despite the criticisms, there’s no stopping ESPN’s way to success
For all its success and prominence, ESPN and its array of sister networks have been receiving several flaks from many of their viewers, citing reasons such as biased reporting/coverage, conflict of interest, getting away from “real” sports (for covering events like poker and the National Spelling Bee), excessive corporate sponsorships, and spotlighting some of their broadcasters other than focusing on the sporting event itself, among many other grievances.
But there’s no way to criticize ESPN’s massive success and popularity. Its early struggles have long ago paid off, and have allowed the network to become the premiere sports cable and satellite network in the world, and that alone is the greatest victory that ESPN has ever scored.
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The History of ESPN timeline, an interactive ‘History of ESPN’ timeline on Timetoast.
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Highlights from MediaWorks’ tour of ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn.