Touching all bases, ESPN hits 20 years

Growing company puts full menu on fan's plate

September 06, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

BRISTOL, Conn. -- In the early 1980s, George Bodenheimer would roam the Southwest, persuading cable operators to add his channel, ESPN, to their offerings. The response to his sales pitch would always be the same.

"They would all say, `You know, George, we think of ourselves as a sports town here.' And I would say, `You're right. Everybody thinks they live in a sports town,' " said Bodenheimer, who climbed from a lowly salesman to the president of ESPN.

As much as any entity could, Bodenheimer's company, which marks its 20th anniversary tomorrow, has helped reinforce the concept of the United States as one big sports town, with round-the-clock sports served up any way you like them.

Want four distinct domestic and 20 internationally flavored channels of sports television programming? ESPN has that.

Want a 620-station radio network, a slickly published magazine, an Internet site heavy on stats and attitude, and pagers with nearly unlimited data. ESPN has that, too.

If you're hungry and want to watch a game along with a plate of baby "back-back-back" ribs, ESPN can give you that, too, through its "Zone" restaurants, the first of which opened in Baltimore's Inner Harbor last summer.

If you're not satisfied, wait until tomorrow. On its anniversary, ESPN will launch two new domestic channels and debut a redesigned Web site -- already the most popular sports site on the World Wide Web.

In two decades, operating from a New England town so bucolic that staffers had to spray the studios nightly to get rid of flies, ESPN has become a global communications behemoth, with operating income expected to approach $750 million for fiscal 1999.

"They've had a vision. They always protected that brand. The brand name is what they've built everything around," said Barry Gould, a sports media analyst.

"We don't have viewers. We have fans. It's beyond just being a sports network," said anchor Bob Ley, who started with ESPN two days after its launch. "It's a cultural touchstone. It's a reference point. You can't go into a restaurant, a dorm, a bar or walk down a hotel corridor and not know us. We're everywhere."

The self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" has come a long way, but as old-timers tell it, growth was slow in coming, and there were always rumors that ESPN would fold its tent or be sold.

From the beginning, even if the new channel wasn't making money, ESPN seemed to strike a chord among those who loved sports.

"We were like their cult heroes," said Chris Berman, who along with Ley, are the only two surviving on-air personalities still with ESPN from the launch. "It was like we were on the lam from the feds and they were hiding us out."

Things were so wild in those days that the channel actually tried to pass off dwarf-tossing as a sport. Meanwhile, niche events such as Australian rules football and darts helped fill the schedule.

But it was ESPN's embrace of college basketball that raised the profile of both the sport and the channel.

In particular, the lovable rantings of a failed NBA coach named Dick Vitale and ESPN's early-round coverage of the NCAA tournament ensured that the channel would hold its own against the network titans and would not be lost among the rapidly multiplying choices on the cable box.

"Think about this: Prior to ESPN in 1979, the only games you could get on television were North Carolina or Kentucky or Indiana or the major, major programs on the major networks," Vitale said. "Today, there's a smorgasbord of games all over America, every conference and almost every school in Division I."

There are some, however, who wonder whether the nearly nightly coverage of college basketball hasn't had a detrimental effect.

"ESPN has been a net positive for college basketball and sports in general," said Fang Mitchell, coach at Coppin State. "Being on television certainly helps people know who you are and enhances your importance, but the smaller schools don't always see that. You have a tendency of forgetting that everybody's equal."

The company was strengthened when ABC bought into ESPN in 1981 and then exercised its option to buy control from Getty Oil three years later.

It was not until 1987, when ESPN aired live coverage of the America's Cup sailing from Australia, as well as began telecasting NFL games, that ESPN truly arrived.

"That might have been the first time we got into the culture and psyche of America," said Bodenheimer. "We had people who had never stayed up until 3 in the morning, much less stay up until 3 in the morning to watch sailing from Australia, calling us and writing us and calling their cable operator. It was almost like a cultural phenomenon, and it put us on the map."

The original ESPN channel continued to grow, steadily adding subscribers and programming, including major-league baseball in 1990, arriving at a figure of 76 million homes this year. That makes it third in the cable universe behind TBS and the Discovery Channel.

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