Since its launch nearly four decades ago, ESPN has completely changed the way that we watch, discuss, and think about sport. A new book, based on extensive interviews and archival research, looks at the network’s rise from humble beginnings to its current reach around the world. In this excerpt, media scholar Travis Vogan sketches out ESPN’s decisive influence on contemporary sport and popular culture.
Shortly after ESPN’s September 7, 1979, launch, the Washington Post’s Jane Leavy asked the new outlet’s president, Chet Simmons, how he thought the public would respond to an all-sports cable TV network. “I guess we’ll have to have a battery of divorce lawyers standing by to handle all the cases,” Simmons quipped. “Did you ever think that a television network would be named as a co-respondent in a divorce action?” Three years later, a woman in Austin, Texas, actually did name ESPN in her divorce suit. She claimed it ruined her marriage by offering her apparently addicted husband too much sports coverage.
In 1998 ESPN set up a satellite receiver in Antarctica for eight total viewers. The move transformed it into the only cable outlet that provides service to every continent on Earth. In the process, it made the network’s self-given title as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” (also adopted in 1998) seem slightly less audacious. As then ESPN chair Steve Bornstein remarked, “The sun never sets on the ESPN empire.”
On January 26, 2000, Alisha and Chad Blondeel of Newaygo, Michigan, named their newborn son Espen—a tribute to Chad’s favorite TV channel. Though the first, Espen Blondeel was not the last of ESPN’s honorary progeny. As part of its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in 2004, ESPN included a segment that featured eleven young Espens (several of which spelled the name Espn). The name is now registered on Babynames.com. As silly as it may be to name a child Espn, it is almost unimaginable that an infant would be christened HGTV, VH1, or Comedy Central. This is because these parents named their children not after a cable network, but after a brand, a set of cultural meanings that exceed the institution they represent and serve as a recognizable marker of identity and community.
In 2006 ESPN unveiled Mobile ESPN, a cellular phone that also provided on-demand sports content anywhere its customers roamed. A promotion for the gadget featured SportsCenter anchor Trey Wingo claiming—in the popular news program’s signature smart-aleck tone—that inventions like the wheel and electricity pale in comparison to the space-age product. He then asks an implied audience of straight men to “imagine if you will a world where you could follow Game 3 of the World Series and get credit for sitting through your girlfriend’s cousin’s wedding” and promises the innovation will ensure that “life will never get in the way of your sports again.” Mobile ESPN proved a spectacular failure and was off the market within a year. This costly experiment, however, illustrates ESPN’s monumental ambition and even conceit. With Mobile ESPN, the media outlet not only strove for ubiquity, but also attempted to serve as a sort of utility—a branded circuit through which customers passed any time they checked scores, ordered a pizza, or called a friend. “We wanted a total sports ecosystem,” said Mobile ESPN senior vice president Manish Jha of the goals that informed the eventually aborted product’s creation.
What could be more popular than ESPN? Not much, according to two 2014 Forbes reports that named it the world’s most valuable media property and the second most valuable sports brand after Nike. ESPN is popular in two principal ways, both of which illuminate its significance and uses. First of all, ESPN is pervasive. Second, it is utterly ordinary. Sports media—in part because of their ordinariness—are traditionally considered to be less thoughtful and refined than other genres. Though the sports page has long driven newspaper sales, it is known throughout the industry as a “toy department” that is not held to the same journalistic standards as “real” news. This attitude is similar in sports television, which is often critiqued for claiming to report on organizations that TV outlets pay handsomely for the rights to carry games. Moreover, the beer-guzzling, pot-bellied male sports television viewer—Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, and the like—has become a popular symbol of idle masculinity. In these representations, sports TV is a mundane excuse to avoid thinking (along with spouses, kids, and jobs) rather than a site that provokes thought. Sports media have a reputation for not providing much in the way of credibility, complexity, or edification. Those who consume sports media have a reputation for not demanding these qualities.
“If culture,” notes sports media scholar David Rowe, “is the ‘stuff’ of everyday life—the frame through which we experience, interpret, mold, and represent everything that surrounds us—then sport occupies an uncommonly prominent position within it.” By extension, if “media,” as Robert W. McChesney claims, “made sport,” then sports media play a key role in culture. The aesthetic, economic, industrial, and political contexts that inform sport’s and mass media’s long-standing symbiosis shape sport’s cultural meanings and uses. No institution has, or has ever had, a more influential role in this popular milieu than ESPN. We blame our failed relationships on it, name our children after it, and can access it anytime and anywhere—even in Antarctica. If you go to an ESPN Zone restaurant and order enough ESPYs—a cocktail named after ESPN’s annual awards show—you can get drunk on ESPN. In short, we live in an ESPN culture.
From ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire, by Travis Vogan. Copyright 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.