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ESPN (originally an acronym for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) is a U.S.-based global cable and satellite sports television channel owned by ESPN Inc., a joint venture owned by The Walt Disney Company (80%) and Hearst Communications (20%). The company was founded in 1979 by Bill Rasmussen along with his brother Scott and Ed Egan.
ESPN broadcasts primarily from studio facilities located in Bristol, Connecticut. The network also operates offices in Miami, New York City, Seattle, Charlotte, and Los Angeles. John Skipper currently serves as president of ESPN, a position he has held since January 1, 2012. While ESPN is one of the most successful sports networks, there has been much criticism of ESPN, which includes accusations of biased coverage, conflict of interest, and controversies with individual broadcasters and analysts.
As of January 2016[update], ESPN is available to approximately 91,405,000 paid television households (78.527% of households with at least one television set) in the United States. Nielsen has reported a much lower number in 2017, below 90,000,000 subscribers, losing more than 10,000 a day. In addition to the flagship channel and its seven related channels in the United States, ESPN broadcasts in more than 200 countries, operating regional channels in Australia, Brazil, Latin America and the United Kingdom, and owning a 20% interest in The Sports Network (TSN) as well as its five sister networks in Canada.
Bill Rasmussen conceived the concept of ESPN in late May 1978, after he was fired from his job with the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers. One of the first steps in Bill and his son Scott's (who had also been let go by the Whalers) process was finding land to build the channel's broadcasting facilities. The Rasmussens first rented office space in Plainville, Connecticut. However, the plan to base ESPN there was put on hold because a local ordinance prohibiting buildings from bearing rooftop satellite dishes. Available land area was quickly found in Bristol, Connecticut (where the channel remains headquartered to this day), with funding to buy the property provided by Getty Oil, which purchased 85% of the company from Bill Rasmussen on February 22, 1979, in an attempt to diversify the company's holdings. This helped the credibility of the fledgling company, however there were still many doubters to the viability of their sports channel concept. Another event that helped build ESPN's credibility was securing an advertising agreement with Anheuser-Busch in the spring of 1979; the company invested $1 million to be the "exclusive beer advertised on the network."
ESPN launched on September 7, 1979, beginning with the first telecast of what would become the channel's flagship program, SportsCenter. Taped in front of a small live audience inside the Bristol studios, it was broadcast to 1.4 million cable subscribers throughout the United States.
ESPN's next big break came when the channel acquired the rights to broadcast coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. It first aired the NCAA tournament in March 1980, creating the modern day television event known as "March Madness." The channel's tournament coverage also launched the broadcasting career of Dick Vitale, who at the time he joined ESPN, had just been fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
In April of that year, ESPN created another made-for-TV spectacle, when it began televising the NFL Draft. It provided complete coverage of the event that allowed rookie players from the college ranks to begin their professional careers in front of a national television audience in ways they were not able to previously.
The next major stepping stone for ESPN came over the course of a couple of months in 1984. During this time period, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) purchased 100% of ESPN from the Rasmussens and Getty Oil. Under Getty ownership, the channel was unable to compete for the television rights to major sports events contracts as its majority corporate parent would not provide the funding, leading ESPN to lose out for broadcast deals with the National Hockey League (to USA Network) and NCAA Division I college football (to TBS). For years, the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball refused to consider cable as a means of broadcasting some of their games. However, with the backing of ABC, ESPN's ability to compete for major sports contracts greatly increased, and gave it credibility within the sports broadcasting industry.
Later in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could no longer monopolize the rights to negotiate the contracts for college football games, allowing each individual school to negotiate broadcast deals of their choice. ESPN took full advantage and began to broadcast a large number of NCAA football games, creating an opportunity for fans to be able to view multiple games each weekend (instead of just one), the same deal that the NCAA had previously negotiated with TBS. ESPN's breakthrough moment occurred in 1987, when it secured a contract with the NFL to broadcast eight games during that year's regular season – all of which aired on Sunday nights, marking the first broadcasts of Sunday NFL primetime games. ESPN's Sunday Night Football games would become the highest-rated NFL telecasts for the next 17 years (before losing the rights to NBC in 2006). The channel's decision to broadcast NFL games on Sunday evenings actually resulted in a decline in viewership for the daytime games shown on the major broadcast networks, marking the first time that ESPN had been a legitimate competitor to NBC and CBS, which had long dominated the sports television market.
In 1992, ESPN launched ESPN Radio, a national sports talk radio network providing analysis and commentary programs (including shows such as Mike and Mike in the Morning and The Herd) as well as audio play-by-play of sporting events (including some simulcasted with the ESPN television channel).
On October 10, 1993, ESPN2 – a secondary channel that originally was programmed with a separate lineup of niche sports popular with males 18–49 years old (with snowboarding and the World Series of Poker as its headliners) as well as serving as an overflow channel for ESPN – launched on cable systems reaching to 10 million subscribers. It became the fastest growing cable channel in the U.S. during the 1990s, eventually expanding its national reach to 75 million subscribers.
Ownership of ABC, and in effect control of ESPN, was acquired first by Capital Cities Communications in 1985, and then by The Walt Disney Company in 1996. In 2012, ESPN generated more revenue for Disney than any of its other properties combined.
On April 26, 2017, approximately 100 ESPN employees were notified that their positions with the sports network had been terminated, among them athletes-turned-analysts Trent Dilfer and Danny Kanell, and noted journalists like NFL beat reporter Ed Werder and Major League Baseball expert Jayson Stark. The layoffs came as ESPN continued to shed viewers, more than 10 million over a period of several years, while paying big money for the broadcast rights to such properties as the NFL, NBA and College Football Playoff. Further cost-cutting measures taken include moving the studio operations of ESPNU to Bristol from Charlotte, North Carolina, reducing its longtime MLB studio show Baseball Tonight to Sundays as a lead-in to the primetime game and adding the MLB Network-produced Intentional Talk to ESPN2's daily lineup.
Alongside its live sports broadcasts, ESPN also airs a variety of sports highlight, talk, and documentary-styled shows. These include:
- Around the Horn – Competitive debating between four sports writers across the country
- Baseball Tonight – A daily recap of the day's Major League Baseball stories and games that airs throughout the baseball season
- College GameDay (basketball) – Weekly college basketball show airing from the Saturday Primetime game of the week site
- College GameDay (football) – Weekly college football preview show airing from the site of a major college football game
- E:60 – An investigative newsmagazine program focusing on American and international sports
- First Take – Monday-Friday with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim (moved from ESPN2 on January 3, 2017)
- Mike and Mike in the Morning – A simulcast of the ESPN Radio morning show, focusing on current sports stories
- Monday Night Countdown – Weekly recap show aired on Monday evenings during the NFL season, also serves as the pre-game show for Monday Night Football
- Outside the Lines – Talk and debate show that examines critical sports issues on and off the field of play
- Pardon the Interruption – Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon debate an array of sports topics
- SportsCenter – The flagship program of ESPN, a daily sports news program delivering the latest sports news and highlights
- SportsNation – Poll-driven show based on audience participation, including material generated or suggested by viewers
- Sunday NFL Countdown – Weekly preview show that airs on Sunday mornings during the NFL season
Many of ESPN's documentary programs (such as 30 for 30 and Nine for IX) are produced by ESPN Films, a film division created in March 2008 as a restructuring of ESPN Original Entertainment, a programming division that was originally formed in 2001. 30 for 30 started airing in 2009 and continues airing to this day. Each episode is through the eyes of a well known filmmaker and has featured some of the biggest directors in Hollywood. The 30 for 30 film O.J.: Made in America won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2017, the first such Oscar for ESPN.
Since September 2006, ESPN has been integrated with the sports division of sister broadcast network ABC, with sports events televised on that network airing under the banner ESPN on ABC; much of ABC's sports coverage since the rebranding has become increasingly limited to secondary coverage of sporting events whose broadcast rights are held by ESPN (such as NBA games, The Open Championship, and the X Games and its related qualifying events) as well as a limited array of event coverage not broadcast on ESPN (most notably, the NBA Finals).
- John Skipper – President, ESPN, Inc.
- Sean Bratches – Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing
- Christine Driessen – Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer
- Ed Durso – Executive Vice President, Administration
- Aaron LaBerge – Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
- Norby Williamson – Executive Vice President, Programming
- Russell Wolff – Executive Vice President and Managing Director, ESPN International
ESPN2 launched on October 1, 1993, it carried a broad mix of event coverage from conventional sports (such as auto racing, college basketball and NHL hockey) to extreme sports (such as BMX, skateboarding and motocross). The "ESPN BottomLine," a ticker displaying sports news and scores during all programming that is now used by all of ESPN's networks, originated on ESPN2 in 1995. In the late 1990s, ESPN2 was gradually reformatted to serve as a secondary outlet for ESPN's mainstream sports programming.
ESPN Classic is a digital cable and satellite television network that launched in 1995 as Classic Sports Network, founded by Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg. ESPN Inc. purchased Classic Sports Network in 1997 for $175 million, rebranding the channel to its current name the following year. The channel broadcasts notable archived sporting events (originally including events from past decades, but now focusing mainly on events from the 1990s and later), sports documentaries and sports-themed movies.
ESPNews is a digital cable and satellite television network that was launched on November 1, 1996, originally focusing solely on sports news, highlights and press conferences. Since August 2010, the network has gradually incorporated encores of ESPN's various sports debate and entertainment shows and video simulcasts of ESPN Radio shows, in addition to sports news programming (which since the 2013 cancellation of Highlight Express, consists mainly of additional runs of SportsCenter); ESPNews also serves as an overflow feed due to programming conflicts caused by sporting events on the other ESPN networks.
ESPN+ is a digital cable and satellite television network that launched in 2002; this signal is seen in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and from November 21, 2013, also in Venezuela. ESPN+ signal displays events in these sports: Football, Tennis, Rugby, Cycling, Baseball, Horse Riding, Hockey and sports programs about: Football, Tennis, Rugby, Polo, Hockey, Motor, etc. It is divided into two signals: Atlantic and Pacific.
ESPN Deportes (Spanish pronunciation: [i.es.piˈen deˈportes], "ESPN Sports") is a digital cable and satellite television network that was originally launched in July 2001 to provide Spanish language simulcasts of certain Major League Baseball telecasts from ESPN. It became a 24-hour sports channel in January 2004.
The Longhorn Network is a digital cable and satellite television network that was launched on August 26, 2011, focusing on events from the Texas Longhorns varsity sports teams of the University of Texas at Austin. It features events from the 20 sports sanctioned by the Texas Longhorns athletics department, along with original programming (including historical, academic and cultural content).
SEC Network is a digital cable and satellite television network that launched on August 14, 2014, focusing on the coverage of sporting events sanctioned by the Southeastern Conference. Created as a result of a 20-year broadcast partnership between the two entities, the network is a joint venture between the conference and ESPN Inc. (which operates the network).
ESPN launched its high definition simulcast feed, originally branded as ESPNHD, on March 20, 2001. All studio shows based in Bristol and at L.A. Live, along with most live event telecasts on ESPN, are broadcast in high definition. ESPN is one of the few television networks with an all-digital infrastructure. Archived non-HD programming is presented in 4:3 standard definition with stylized pillarboxing. Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn began airing in HD on September 27, 2010, with the relocation of the production of both shows into the facility housing the Washington, D.C. bureau for ABC News.
ESPN, as with Disney/ABC's other broadcast and cable networks, transmits HD programming in the 720p resolution format; this is due to the fact that ABC executives had proposed a progressive scan signal that resolves fluid and high-speed motion in sports better, particularly during slow-motion replays. The network's Digital Center itself natively holds 2160p UHD/4K operations and equipment. In 2011, ESPNHD began to downplay its distinct promotional logo in preparation for the conversion of its standard definition feed from a 4:3 full-screen to a letterboxed format (via the application of the AFD #10 display flag), which occurred on June 1 of that year.
WatchESPN is a website for desktop computers, as well as an application for smartphones and tablet computers that allows subscribers of participating cable and satellite providers to watch live streams of programming from ESPN and its sister networks (with the exception of ESPN Classic), including most sporting events, on computers, mobile devices, Apple TV, Roku and Xbox Live via their TV Everywhere login provided by their cable provider. The service originally launched on October 25, 2010 as ESPN Networks, a streaming service which provided a live stream of ESPN exclusive to Time Warner Cable subscribers. ESPN3, an online streaming service providing live streams and replays of global sports events that launched in 2005 as a separate website, was incorporated into the WatchESPN platform on August 31, 2011.
ESPN Regional Television (formerly branded as ESPN Plus) is the network's syndication arm, which produces collegiate sporting events for broadcast television stations throughout the United States (primarily those affiliated with networks such as The CW and MyNetworkTV or independent stations). ESPN Plus syndicates college football and basketball games from the American Athletic Conference, Big 12 Conference, Mid-American Conference, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Sun Belt Conference and the Western Athletic Conference.
ESPN owns and operates regional channels in Australia, Brazil, and Latin America. In Canada, ESPN is a minority owner of The Sports Network (TSN) and the French-language Réseau des sports (RDS). ESPN also has a minority stake in J Sports in Japan. In the United Kingdom, BT Group operates the channel BT Sport ESPN.
In popular culture
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ESPN has been a part of popular culture since its inception. Many movies with a general sports theme will include ESPN announcers and programming into their storylines.
Many jokes have been made by comedians about fake obscure sports that are shown on ESPN. Dennis Miller mentioned watching "sumo rodeo," while George Carlin stated that ESPN showed "Australian dick wrestling." One of several Saturday Night Live sketches poking fun at the network features a fictional ESPN2 program called Scottish Soccer Hooligan Weekly, which includes a fake advertisement for "Senior Women's Beach Lacrosse." SNL also parodies ESPN Classic with fake archived obscure women's sports event telecasts from the 1980s (such as bowling, weightlifting and curling), with announcers who know nothing about the sport, and instead focus on the sponsors, which were always for feminine hygiene products. In the early years of ESPN, Late Night with David Letterman even featured a "Top Ten List" segment poking fun at some of the obscure sports seen on ESPN at the time. One of the more memorable sports on the list was "Amish Rake Fighting." A recurring skit on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon named Sports Freak-Out! is a parody of SportsCenter's overexcited anchors.
The 2004 comedy film DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story gently lampoons the channel's multiple outlets by referencing the fictional ESPN8, "The Ocho", a reference to a nickname formerly used by ESPN2, "the Deuce". ESPNU was rebranded ESPN The Ocho on August 8, 2017, airing obscure competitions such as disc golf, kabaddi, arm wrestling and roller derby.
Sports video games releases by Electronic Arts in the early 1990s featured a logo for a fictional sports network, EASN (Electronic Arts Sports Network); this was soon changed to EA Sports after ESPN requested that the company stop using the similar name. In 2005, both companies signed a 15-year partnership, where the ESPN brand and personalities are integrated into EA Sports video games.
An occasional joke used in comedic television and film involves people getting ESP (the common abbreviation for extrasensory perception, that was coincidentally the working abbreviation for the channel prior to its launch) confused with ESPN, often including someone saying a sentence along the lines of "I know these kinds of things, I've got ESPN." There are also at least 22 children that are named after the network.
On November 19, 2017, in Season 29, Episode 7 of The Simpsons, entitled "Singin' In The Lane", the bowling tournament is being streamed on ESPN8, which is a parody of ESPN the ocho
ESPN has been criticized for focusing too much on men's college and professional sports, and very little on women's sports or extreme sports. Other criticism has focused on ethnicity in ESPN's varying mediated forms, as well as carriage fees and issues regarding the exportation of ESPN content. Some critics argue that ESPN's success is their ability to provide other enterprise and investigative sports news while competing with other hard sports-news-producing outlets such as Yahoo! Sports and Fox Sports. Some scholars have challenged ESPN's journalistic integrity calling for an expanded standard of professionalism to prevent biased coverage and conflicts of interest.
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ESPN says it's heard of at least 22 babies named ESPN
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