The World: ESPN marks 30 years of enthralling sports fans
By Ann Cooper, Campaign, Friday, 18 September 2009 12:00AM
One man's pipe-dream now entertains more than 100 million armchair fans, and it shows no sign of stopping.
ESPN, the Disney-owned cable conglomerate and multi-media company, which this summer bought the rights to show 46 English Premier League games that were to have been screened by the struggling Setanta network, exists on a simple formula that has served it well up to the 30th birthday it celebrates this month.
It brings sports fans what they previously didn't know they needed: in-depth information, features and personalities.
The formula works spectacularly well. ESPN boasts seven US and 30 international TV networks and is watched in more than 90 countries by a global audience of more than 100 million.
From a two-storey building in Bristol, Connecticut, the company is now the world's biggest sports media brand.
ESPN (originally an acronym for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) was started by William Rasmussen, a former sportscaster and PR director. His aim was to establish a national satellite cable sports network to show the games of his beloved University of Connecticut hockey team, the Whalers.
Getty Oil provided the funding to begin the new venture, which took off rapidly - largely because, until ESPN's launch as a single satellite cable company in September 1979, there was not a lot of sports news or features other than scores, reports and weekend shows that broadcast sporting events.
Kevin Proudfoot, the executive creative director at Wieden & Kennedy in New York, ESPN's agency of 17 years, says: "ESPN was at the forefront of bringing personality to sports by creating a show that had access to news and updates, and blending it with humour."
As a 24-hour nationwide network, ESPN has become part of the US popular culture. It was among the earliest cable-based broadcasters for the National Basketball Association while the United States Football League made its debut on ESPN in 1983. By 1987, it had gained rights to the National Football League. As a result, it's always been popular with advertisers trying to reach the often elusive 15- to 35-year-old male audience.
When W&K won the account, it had the brainwave of positioning ESPN not as a cable channel, but as a fan. "We want the fans to feel like we are talking specifically to them," Proudfoot says.
Rich Weinstein, the group account director at the agency, adds: "ESPN's vice-president of marketing realised that to be a successful brand and not just a cable network, their marketing needed to be as entertaining as their content."
To many Americans, ESPN's voice is personified by SportsCenter, the daily, one-hour-long flagship sports news programme that has been around for as long as the cable network itself. Describing itself as "the game behind the game", it offers reports on breaking news, creative highlights, features and in-depth analysis. Over the years, its anchors have been the butt of jokes in the award-winning satirical ad campaign "this is SportsCenter".
Proudfoot says: "Anchors who are TV personalities are professional on-camera, but when they're behind the scenes, which is what that campaign shows, they have fun with themselves. They're goofy. They don't always get it right. They're human and that's part of the appeal too."
The "this is SportsCenter" campaign has been running for more than 14 years and the reason for its success is that it provides content that the fans look forward to seeing. "They see it as a kind of short-form programming," Proudfoot says. "There's always something happening in sports. There's always champions being crowned and human interest."
The agency typically focuses on hardcore fans and rarely ventures into new territory. One campaign that did was "without sports" in 2002. "Sports is part of our culture and our lives and that campaign played that role in our lives," Proudfoot explains. "That's the only time when we've talked to a broader audience."
However, it's not all been plain sailing. Like other media companies, it had to make some redundancies in May - the first in its history - while ESPN The Magazine saw the number of its ad pages drop by almost a quarter during the first half of 2009. The company says it's trying to work out a new business plan for the publication.
Today, W&K creates around ten or 12 campaigns a year and between 60 and 90 commercials, as well as a host of promotions using new media. One recent application was an interactive out-of-home promotion that uses store windows to promote a new season of Monday Night Football. Fans are able to play a game where they pick one of the teams playing on Monday night and then pick their quarterback who then throws the player a pass as they stand on the pavement.
The reason the advertising stays fresh is because there's always something new happening. "The reason I've stayed 11 years on the account is that if you do something interesting or provocative or engaging, there's an audience out there that appreciates it and they respond," Proudfoot explains.
As for the future, expect more focus on new technology. ESPN was one of the first media brands to launch a broadband network, ESPN 360, in 2002. Commentators point out that it has never had a problem embracing and even shaping new media. Then there's a new emphasis on soccer, having won the US rights to the 2006 World Cup and promising its "biggest marketing campaign ever" for the 2010 tournament.
"Soccer wasn't a big priority," Weinstein says. "But once they got the rights to the World Cup, then that's going to bring in a broader soccer fan base and get even more fans to watch more on ESPN."
THE MAN IN CHARGE - George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN
Never underestimate George Bodenheimer's low profile. He may not dominate a room and be so softly spoken that you can barely hear him, but he's made ESPN an essential part of the US sports fan's life.
Colleagues remark on his nice-guy smile and sense of humour. But, as one of his associates points out: "He can be very demanding and make tough decisions. He's someone who understands that everything doesn't go the way you hoped it would."
He's an ESPN lifer, having joined the network in 1981 by driving mail around its headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and picking up tapes from the airport.
He got promoted to affiliate sales when he was the only staffer willing to relocate to Texas and has since moved steadily up the ESPN ladder, becoming president in 1998.
Under Bodenheimer, ESPN has earned a reputation as an innovative risk-taker both on-screen and off. "He respects the traditions of ESPN but is fearless about moving forward," one of his senior managers says.
THE ESPN STORY
1978: Founded by William and Scott Rasmussen
1979: ESPN launches
1983: Begins distributing programming globally
1984: ABC acquires ESPN from Getty Oil
1987: Awarded NFL's first cable contract
1989: Contract with Major League Baseball
1992: ESPN Radio launches
1993: ESPN2 launches in ten million homes
1995: ESPN SportsZone (now ESPN.com) launches
1996: Walt Disney Company completes acquisition of the ESPN owner Capital Cities/ABC
1998: ESPN The Magazine launches
2001: ESPN2 reaches 75 million homes
2005: Acquires Monday Night Football for eight years. Agreement to screen Major League Baseball until 2013
2007: ESPN360.com launches
2008: Agrees to televise all four rounds of the British Open Golf Championship
2009: Buys rights to show 46 English Premier League games, which were due to be shown by Setanta
This article was first published on Campaign
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