ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire

ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire

by Travis Vogan

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Once a shoestring operation built on plywood sets and Australian rules football, ESPN has evolved into a media colossus. A genius for cross-promotion and its near-mystical rapport with its viewers empower the network to set agendas and create superstars, to curate sports history even as it mainstreams the latest cultural trends. Travis Vogan teams archival research and interviews with an all-star cast to pen the definitive account of how ESPN turned X's and O's into billions of $$$. Vogan's institutional and cultural history focuses on the network since 1998, the year it launched a high-motor effort to craft its brand and grow audiences across media platforms. As he shows, innovative properties like SportsCentury, ESPN The Magazine , and 30 for 30 built the network's cultural caché. This credibility, in turn, propelled ESPN's transformation into an entity that lapped its run-of-the-mill competitors and helped fulfill its self-proclaimed status as the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." Ambitious and long overdue, ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire offers an inside look at how the network changed an industry and reshaped the very way we live as sports fans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081224
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/15/2015
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 621,184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Travis Vogan is assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media .

Read an Excerpt


The Making of a Sports Media Empire



Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09786-7


From the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network to ESPN

ESPN may become the biggest thing in TV sports since Monday Night Football and night-time World Series games.

— William O. Johnson, Sports Illustrated

Like hamburgers and French fries, [ESPN] is one of the emblems of America.

— Tom Knott, Washington Times

On Memorial Day weekend 1978, Bill Rasmussen, the exuberant forty-five-year-old director of communications for the World Hockey Association's (WHA) Hartford Whalers, received word that his employment was terminated. This did not come as much of a surprise — or even a disappointment, really — to the former entrepreneur and broadcaster who had bounced around the New England sports media scene since selling his interests in an advertising service business to join Amherst, Massachusetts's WTTT radio in 1962. The Whalers, like most franchises in the upstart WHA, were in financial trouble and desperately needed to free up some capital.

Despite his firing, Rasmussen kept an already scheduled appointment with Ed Eagan, an Aetna Insurance agent by day who was producing a TV show on Connecticut-area sports for cable distribution on the side with Bob Beyus, a telecommunications contractor who kept an office at Plainville, Connecticut's United Cable and owned production equipment. Eagan initially contacted Rasmussen to gauge the Whalers' interest in the program, for which he and Beyus had thus far made only a pilot on hot-air balloons. Rasmussen figured he might use the meeting to workshop some ideas regarding his next professional move. He brought along his twenty-two-year-old son, Scott, who was still working as the Whalers' public address announcer, to help out. While chatting about Eagan and Beyus's program — an idea both Bill and Scott thought had legs — the possibility of a subscription cable channel devoted entirely to Connecticut-area sports arose. Though none of the meeting's attendees had any experience creating a cable network, they considered it a possibility worth exploring. For the interim, they settled on the name Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, or ESP Network for short. They liked the double entendre and assumed any shifts to their idea would likely still fall within the entertainment and sports categories.

Shortly after its first gathering, the invigorated group arranged a meeting for Connecticut-area cable operators in United Cable's conference room to drum up interest (see appendix A). They even parked a rented state-of-the-art production truck near United Cable's entrance to let the visiting operators know that ESP aimed to provide top-of-the-line productions. The presentation was sparsely attended, and those who did show thought the idea of a sports channel to be foolhardy and did not believe the inexperienced speculators possessed the know-how to pull it off. Moreover, the ESP group quickly realized that its plan would be far more expensive than anticipated because the regional cable providers received their content from several multiple-system operators (MSOs) instead of a single centralized source into which ESP could easily tap. All was not completely lost, however. United Cable vice president Jim Doby recommended that the group consider satellite distribution, a relatively new model that provided networks greater geographic range than terrestrial cable.

Though by no means a success, the meeting was encouraging enough to compel the entrepreneurs to rent a spare office at United Cable to set up a temporary base of operations while they researched the project's feasibility and solicited investors. They then staged a press conference, which yielded just four attendees from thirty-five invitations, where they unveiled their plan: ESP would be a cable network focusing on the University of Connecticut and other area sports. It would cost subscribers $18 and run approximately five hours daily during the nine-month school year. Beyus exited the group shortly after. "He thought we were crazy and left," Rasmussen chuckled thirty-five years later. Beyus, however, asserts that Eagan and the Rasmussens exploited his financial and technological resources to keep the nascent project afloat. He claims to have left only because his partners were "conning" him. Interpersonal discord aside, the ESP quartet became a trio just a little more than a month after forming.

Still undaunted, Eagan and the Rasmussens forked over the $91 fee to incorporate ESP one week later. The business license listed Eagan, whose attorney drew up the paperwork, as the company's president, with Bill and Scott as vice presidents. With Doby's assistance, the group scheduled a meeting with RCA's Al Parinello, who was in charge of marketing and selling transponder space on the company's SATCOM 1 satellite. Parinello was having a surprisingly difficult time renting the transponder's channels, as satellite distribution was still uncommon in the United States. After Parinello explained RCA's rates for five hours per evening (which amounted to $1,250 per day), the group realized it would be less expensive to rent space for twenty-four hours a day, a service for which RCA charged $35,000 monthly. They couldn't afford either deal, recalls Scott Rasmussen, so they figured they might as well reserve space for twenty-four hours. The only catch was that their lease required a five-year commitment and would carry a termination fee. RCA — which rented its transponder space on a first-come, first-served basis — did not require payment for ninety days after the satellite's first use. The grace period provided a necessary buffer for the ESP group to get its financial act together. Furthermore, the transponder rights gave ESP a way to entice investors, or at least to prove it was slightly more than an idea. In fact, the rights became far more valuable after a front-page Wall Street Journal article trumpeting satellite cable as the wave of the future prompted corporate communication outlets to gobble up the rest of RCA's available slots.

In his memoir about ESPN's development, Bill Rasmussen suggests the transponder rights set in motion "a series of events that no scriptwriter worth his salt could concoct." In doing so, the charismatic businessman reinforces a storybook, ex nihilo creation myth for ESPN that situates him and his colleagues as the prescient visionaries who conceptualized the revolutionary — and now commonplace — practice of twenty-four-hour sports TV. Though certainly innovative, their idea was not as groundbreaking as Rasmussen — an infamous yarn spinner whose tales most commentators have reproduced without scrutiny — suggests. By the late 1970s, sports television was at an all-time high in the United States. The previous two decades saw ABC Sports redefine sports TV's aesthetic ambitions and demographic reach with the "up close and personal" approach Roone Arledge developed that informed Wide World of Sports (1961–98) and Monday Night Football (1970–present). Moreover, syndicated programs such as NFL Game of the Week (1965–86, 2003–9) and This Week in Baseball (1977–98, 2000–2011) appeared outside of the weekend and evening time slots to which sports content was traditionally confined. Sport media scholar Garry Whannel suggests the 1970s set the stage for sports TV to "reach its mature form." During this era, average American households had their television sets turned on for approximately six hours a day and devoted roughly 20 percent of that time to sports programming — a figure that jumped to about 25 percent among male viewers. "Television," as a 1979 New York Times report puts it, "became America's Big Daddy of sports during the 1970s, buying recognition and respectability for the Olympics, bankrolling pro football, basketball and baseball, building its own games and names, rebuilding boxing, and tantalizing viewers with sophisticated space-age toys like mini-cameras and video tape machines." ESP grew in large part out of the fertile ground its broadcast predecessors cultivated.

ESP also emerged as cable TV was gaining momentum. Though only about 20 percent of American television households received cable when ESP was forming, these numbers — in combination with satellite technology's expanded distributional breadth — were enough to justify pursuing a national service. Originally called community antenna television (CATV), cable developed as a locally oriented service designed to provide access to communities that could not get over-the-air broadcast TV. Like many new technologies, cable was accompanied by utopian discourses that championed its potential to deliver different types of content to underserved and underrepresented groups. The 1971 Sloan Commission on Cable Communications — an independent research group — dubbed cable the "television of abundance," and journalist Ralph Lee Smith optimistically called it "an electronic highway." "The faith [in cable]," explained journalist Brenda Maddox in 1972, "is religious in that it begins with something that was once despised — a crude makeshift way of bringing television to remote areas — and sees it transformed ... into a cure for the ills of modern urban American society."

This moment of optimism, which TV historian Megan Mullen calls cable television's "blue sky period," was accompanied by the increased deregulation of the communications industry. These implementations, in particular the 1972 Cable Television Report and Order, were ostensibly designed to realize cable TV's democratic potential. Mullen, however, observes that they actually aided a broader free-market, neoliberal trend in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy making. Neoliberalism, as Robert W. McChesney outlines, "is almost always intertwined with a deep belief in the ability of markets to use new technologies to solve social problems far better than any alternative course. The centerpiece of neoliberal policies is invariably a call for commercial media and communication markets to be deregulated. What this means in practice is that they are 're-regulated' to serve corporate interests." In contrast to its terrestrial predecessor, satellite cable had the potential to serve niche audiences on a national scale. Within this market-driven environment, however, the new technology became a tool only the wealthiest could afford, resulting in outlets such as the Turner Broadcasting System WTBS "superstation" (originally named WTCG for Turner Communications Group) that media mogul Ted Turner launched in 1976 and the Christian Broadcasting Network that evangelist Pat Robertson started in 1977.

Though ESP would become the first all-sports network — a status it flaunted with its initial slogan, "The Total Sports Network" — sports content found a welcome home in early satellite cable. The Madison Square Garden Network, which launched in 1971 and became the USA Network in 1979, provided a national service with a schedule dominated by sports. Home Box Office (HBO) started in 1972 as a subscription-based terrestrial service and switched to satellite in 1975. It employed sporting events like the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which it carried from 1975 to 1999, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" heavyweight championship boxing match to develop a national audience. Ted Turner used his Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks sports franchises to fuel his advertiser-supported superstation. The Braves, in fact, are sometimes referred to as "America's Team" because the consistent national exposure TBS provides makes the franchise more visible than nearby teams in certain markets. The surge of network sports television during the 1970s created the robust market these cable outlets exploited, and these nascent channels generated even greater demand for spectator sports. The notion of a twenty-four-hour sports network still seemed outlandish; however, if it made sense for a cable outlet to devote itself entirely to a single genre, sport certainly stood among the most reasonable candidates.

The ESP group had a license for twenty-four hours' worth of satellite distribution but was still unsure as to precisely how to use it. One thing had become abundantly clear: programming that focused on Connecticut — hardly a hotbed of sport — would not attract a national audience. The entrepreneurs consequently set out to rethink their model by considering ways to augment their sports material with syndicated reruns, old movies, or anything else that might inexpensively attract a steady stream of advertisers and eyeballs. They also shifted their original plan to operate as a subscription service to an advertiser-supported model that would capitalize on the many national companies eager to reach the adult male demographic that sports content so effectively delivered. Bill and Scott were kicking around ideas on a muggy August road trip from Connecticut to Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The humidity and brainstorming eventually wore on Scott, who exasperatedly attempted to bring the long conversation (and his loquacious father) to a momentary pause by exclaiming, "Play football all day, for all I care!" Bill liked the idea — a lot. He realized that only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of college football games played on autumn weekends were featured on TV and that many less prominent sports — even with the presence of Wide World of Sports and the similar network anthology programs CBS Sports Spectacular (1960–present) and NBC Sportsworld (1978–92) — received hardly any exposure.

Eagan also liked the idea (or at least had not thought of anything better), and the group began in earnest its search for investors to augment Bill's $9,000 in maxed-out credit cards and the roughly $30,000 he had collected from various family members. Through one of Bill's many business contacts, the group established interest from K. S. Sweet Associates, an investment firm that was actually more attracted to the value of the transponder space than how ESP would fill it. After a daylong meeting at K. S. Sweet's King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, headquarters, the firm agreed to provide ESP $75,000 in seed money — a contribution that eventually ballooned to $275,000 — and to help it compose a business plan for potential clients and investors. The ESP group primarily used the investment to traverse the country in search of financial backing, content providers, and MSOs willing to give them space. They focused most of their attention on the National Collegiate Athletic Association, an organization they accessed through Bill's relationship with University of Connecticut athletic director John Toner, a member of the organization's powerful television committee. Their proposal promised to "complement rather than compete with NCAA television contractual engagements" and claimed the new network would "televise nationally a minimum of 500 NCAA Division I, II, and III men's and women's athletic events," with "each event ... broadcast at least twice to maximize exposure." The NCAA was understandably reticent, however, as ESP's proposal conspicuously gave no inkling as to how the upstart would fund its endeavor. NCAA president Walter Byers rightly worried the group was using his organization to get a "hunting license" that would help it to entice other investors and clients.

Meanwhile, J. B. Doherty, the K. S. Sweet associate who handled ESP's account, had shopped the network to six potential buyers with no luck. The seventh meeting he organized, with Getty Oil Company vice president of diversified operations Stuart Evey, initially seemed a long shot. Though Evey's division handled Getty's nonoil interests, it mostly focused on luxury real estate and had never before ventured into cable TV or any part of the communications industry. The Los Angeles–based Evey, however, was a devoted sports fan who always wanted to be part of the comparatively glamorous entertainment business. After consulting with attorney Ed Hookstratten, who represented several prominent sportscasters, Evey became convinced that ESP had the potential to serve as a "major lift" network that would enhance cable subscriptions and provide operators greater potential to sell their more lucrative pay channels like HBO and Showtime. Evey was further motivated by the interest Anheuser-Busch expressed in ESP. The brewing company, a staple in sports media, rightly speculated that although ESP might not immediately attract large total audience numbers, the viewers who did tune in would likely fall within its target market of adult men. Given the combination of Evey's successful track record and Anheuser-Busch's interest, Getty's board green-lighted the effort. Getty's initial $10 million investment gave it 85 percent ownership of ESP and prevented the original ownership group from selling its stock without its new parent's permission. Though the terms of the agreement were stacked heavily in Getty's favor, ESP had no other options. K. S. Sweet, both Evey and Bill Rasmussen recount, would have likely discontinued its funding had Getty passed on ESP.


Excerpted from ESPN by TRAVIS VOGAN. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, vii ,
Introduction: An ESPN Culture, 1,
1 From the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network to ESPN, 11,
2 SportsCentury: Programming Public Sport History, 43,
3 ESPN the Magazine and Page 2: Paper and Digital Sports Pages, 71,
4 ESPN Original Entertainment: Branding Authority across Genres, 95,
5 ESPN Films: "Unprecedented Documentary Series" by "Filmmaking Originals", 121,
6 Grantland: ESPN's Miramax, 147,
Conclusion: From Frontline to the Bottom Line, 171,
Appendix A: The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network's First Press Release, 179,
Appendix B: SportsCentury Top One Hundred Athletes of the Twentieth Century, 183,
Appendix C: SportsCentury Panel, 185,
Notes, 187,
Bibliography, 211,
Index, 235,

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