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ESPN began in the late 1970s as the first 24-hour cable channel devoted exclusively to sports news and the airing of such minor sports as Australian Rules football and tractor pulls. By the 1990s, however, it was a powerhouse ready to extend its brand in every direction, including internationally. On the domestic side, a radio network was launched in 1992; a second cable channel, ESPN2, made its debut in 1993; and a website was introduced in 1995. Then in the fall of 1996 ESPN launched its third cable channel, ESPNews, a 24-hour sports-news service. ESPN hired ad agency Ground Zero to develop a new television and print campaign to promote the channel. The result was an effort titled "The Rick."
The Rick was a fictional obsessive sports fan who rarely left a bedroom bedecked with all manner of memorabilia. Based on a composite of real-life fans, The Rick embodied the dedication of ESPNews to the minutiae of the sports world. In the television spots the character often showed off his collection of sports memorabilia, including sports figurines, which he insisted were vital artifacts and not mere dolls.
Although it was difficult to say how much of a role "The Rick" played, ESPNews outlived its main competition, CNN-SI, which failed to achieve high enough ratings and was taken off the air. The Rick himself, while not especially well received by critics, was popular with ESPN's core audience. The character was brought back to promote the ESPN website as well as the ESPY Awards, a sports-award show organized by and aired on ESPN.
A new era in televised sports began on September 7, 1979, when ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, went on the air. Backed by $10 million in start-up money from Getty Oil, the network was the brainchild of William F. Rasmussen, a broadcaster whose original idea was to televise school sports in Connecticut. ESPN's employees initially numbered about 75, and the network was available in some 1.4 million American homes.
The first program telecast, and to this day the centerpiece of ESPN programming, was SportsCenter, the network's daily wrap-up of sports news. Its success enabled ESPN to begin broadcasting around the clock on September 1, 1980. With few live events to cover, the network relied on a hodgepodge of monster-truck shows, tractor pulls, Australian Rules football, and business programming to keep viewers entertained. Although advertiser interest remained tepid, on May 31, 1981, ESPN reached the 10-million subscriber plateau, an important milestone for a start-up network.
The next three years were a period of exponential growth for ESPN. By August 1983 the network had 28.5 million subscribers and had surpassed Turner Broadcasting's WTBS to become the largest cable network in America. The next year ESPN acquired its first major sports programming, college football. "That was the first property we had that the networks wanted," said Steve Bornstein, the chief executive officer of ESPN. Also in 1984, ABC Video Enterprises bought ESPN from Texaco, which had taken over Getty Oil. ESPN concluded the year with its first profitable quarter and became available in all 50 U.S. states.
In 1985 Capital Cities Inc. bought ABC and acquired ESPN for $237.5 million. In July of that year the ticker known as Sports Update, which offered scores and news flashes on the half hour, made its debut as 28/58. Continuing to pursue football, the big game of sports programming, ESPN in 1987 inked a first-of-its-kind cable deal with the National Football League (NFL), allowing it to televise 13 games per season. Later that year ESPN became the first cable network to reach 50 percent of American homes with television, some 43.7 million households. ESPN International was launched in 1988, and within 10 years it was sending American sports worldwide, with broadcasts in 14 languages. Major league baseball joined the ESPN roster in 1989.
In 1991, in its 12th year, ESPN went to an all-sports format, dropping the morning program Nation's Business Today in favor of rebroadcasts of SportsCenter. On January 1, 1992, the ESPN Radio Network was introduced, offering 16 hours a week of sports news, commentary, and information. Reflecting a trend toward round-the-clock coverage of sports news, the ESPN Phone Update was introduced in 1993. The 900-number service offered scores, news, and information 24 hours a day.
In October 1993 ESPN expanded its family of television networks domestically for the first time when ESPN2, or "the Deuce" as it was known, became available to some 10 million households. The new network offered programming similar to that of ESPN but with a more youthful orientation and a commitment to covering alternative, or "extreme," sports.
In 1995 "ESPNet SportsZone" (later "ESPN SportsZone") was launched on the World Wide Web. This sports resource quickly emerged as one of the most-visited content sites on the Internet, setting a record for usage by registering a high point of 21.6 million hits in one day a year after it was introduced. Also in 1995 ESPN India went on the air, becoming ESPN's 16th network outside the United States. Commentary was provided in English and Hindi. By this time ESPN programming could be heard in 14 languages worldwide. In the United States ESPN could now boast of reaching 70 percent of homes with television, the first U.S. cable network to achieve this level of penetration. Total subscribers had reached 67.1 million.
Impressed by the network's development and the potential for further growth, the Walt Disney Company in 1996 bought ESPN, thus forging a partnership between Disney-owned ABC and the cable network. In the autumn of 1996 ESPNews—the 24-hour all-sports news network—was launched. Five charter advertisers quickly signed on: Coors Brewing Co., General Motors Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., McDonald's Corp., and Procter & Gamble Co. Several of the companies already advertised heavily on ESPN and ESPN2. ESPNews hired 11 new anchors for the network, adopting a format of consecutive 30-minute programs throughout the day. It replayed ESPN's showpiece SportsCenter program each night and featured ESPN commentators such as Peter Gammons on baseball and Chris Mortenson on the NFL. ESPN2 was used to help expose ESPNews to a wider audience by carrying the service between periods in its hockey coverage and at halftime during college basketball games.
At the end of the 1990s the ESPN family of networks, publications (including ESPN the Magazine, a biweekly publication that first appeared in March 1998), and services seemed poised for continued growth. Estimates of the value of ESPN and ESPN2 ranged as high as $5 billion, or about one-quarter of the $19 billion Disney had paid for the entire ABC-Capital Cities empire. By 1999 ESPN, the "mother network," was reaching 73 million, or almost 75 percent, of all homes with television in the United States as well as more than 90 million worldwide. This impressive level of market penetration allowed ESPN to aggressively cross-promote its other networks, including the infant ESPNews.
"The Rick" targeted one of advertising's most coveted demographic groups: young men. These viewers were increasingly tuning out mainstream network television fare in favor of specialized programming geared to their interests, such as that found on ESPN and ESPNews. "Male viewers are continuing to be difficult to target in prime time," observed Larry Goodman, president of news sales for Turner Broadcasting. "For concentrated male viewership, in general, you have to look at cable."
Fortunately for sports news networks such as ESPNews, this male demographic group had few places to turn to in the market. "There's such a shortage of male viewers in broadcast network prime time that any
branded network specializing in the 25-54 demo is always going to be valuable," said Goodman.
Although it was the first 24-hour all-sports news network, ESPNews was soon joined by a formidable competitor, CNN-SI, a joint venture of CNN, the Cable News Network, and Sports Illustrated magazine. A third major player in cable sports programming, Fox Sports Net, emerged in the late 1990s as a challenger to ESPNews sister network ESPN.
The networks shared many characteristics, but for the purpose of capturing the interest of viewers, they tended to emphasize their differences. Jim Walton, CNN senior vice president in charge of CNN-SI, saw the "hard news" cachet implicit in the CNN brand as the principal point of differentiation. In an interview soon after CNN-SI's launch, he was quick to point out that the satellite system PrimeStar had placed the network in two different areas of its service: news and sports. Nevertheless, Walton was not sure that the point was getting across to consumers. As he said in comparing his product with ESPNews, "I see us as different, but I don't know if consumers perceive us differently."
All three of the networks exerted considerable promotional muscle in their efforts to win the allegiance of sports-obsessed consumers. CNN-SI relied on Sports Illustrated as a built-in weekly promotional vehicle. ESPN and Fox aggressively advertised their...