Touching all bases, ESPN hits 20 years; Growing company puts full menu on fan's plate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

In the 1990s, under the leadership of Bodenheimer's predecessor, Steve Bornstein, ESPN expanded its corporate umbrella, adding the radio network in 1992, as well as domestic channels in 1993 (ESPN2) and 1996 (ESPNEWS). It bought the Classic Sports Network in 1997.

The merger of ABC/Capital Cities and Disney in 1995 brought explosive growth, including the addition of a magazine aimed at Generation Xers and a chain of sports-themed restaurants. The latest ESPN Zone is set to open in New York's Times Square next Monday to coincide with the season premiere of "Monday Night Football" on ABC.

The introduction of the new channels plays right into the company's strategies to extend its brand name into everything that has a ball, and to market and promote itself to the hilt.

"Whatever it has to do with sports, ESPN should be there," said Bryan Burns, ESPN vice president of distribution development.

ESPN Extra is a pay-per-view channel that will deliver events such as live international soccer and highlights from the "X Games," the ESPN-created Generation X- themed games into homes. ESPN Now, meanwhile, will package news from the Internet, the latest sports program listings and promos to an interested audience.

Much of the company's growth is tied to advances in technology, like digital cable television. As people upgrade their home entertainment systems and cable systems expand their lineups, Bodenheimer said, ESPN should be able to get its channels into more and more homes.

For all its successes, ESPN has taken some hits. Internally, some staffers grumble about being underpaid relative to industry standards, a charge Bodenheimer vehemently disputes.

Externally, some believe ESPN, long the only 24-hour sports cable operation, has been slow to respond to the competition, coming mostly from Fox.

Meanwhile, ESPN's inability to launch a regional sports channel in Southern California, where Disney owns the Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks hockey team, is seen in some business circles as a principal factor in Disney's presumed desire to sell the teams.

"They haven't done well at warding off the Fox Sports Net threat," said Gould. "Fox has become a national entity, while ESPN has tried to go regional and called it off."

The firm also is embroiled in a feud with baseball over ESPN's desire to transfer Sunday night games from the main channel to ESPN2 (seen in 65 million homes) to accommodate NFL games.

And as it continues to expand its brand into new forms, ESPN, like the snow-cone salesman who expands his trade into hamburgers, will have to maintain that the original product is as solid as always.

"I am concerned, though, but I do think that we're very dialed in on what's happening at home," Berman said. "If we're not, we'd better be. We need to know if the hamburgers aren't right, but we sure as hell need to know if the snow cones aren't right. We need to be very smart to remember why we're here in the first place, because people love sports and we love dishing it out."

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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