At 35, ESPN Isn’t Resting

‘Worldwide Leader' Keeps Innovating As It Marks Another Milestone
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The homepage on Dish Network’s website touted the fact that it would be carrying the SEC Network weeks before the freshman service’s Aug. 14 launch date, heralding its arrival and using it as a marketing tool to attract potential new subscribers.

That satellite-TV provider Dish would devote nearly half of its home page to the SEC Network speaks volumes about the influence and popularity of the preeminent football conference in all of college athletics. It also serves as a not-so-subtle reminder of how ESPN, which owns and operates the SEC Network and shares profits with the Southeastern Conference, remains an monolith on the television sports landscape, casting a shadow over the competition in its never-ending quest to dominate the business.

ESPN marked its 35th anniversary this past Sunday (Sept. 7). Earlier this summer, the network bid farewell to its coverage of the FIFA World Cup by providing comprehensive coverage of the tournament from Brazil that broke ratings records. It is also winding down its coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series this fall.

The worldwide leader is continuing to push its WatchESPN suite of products and will usher in the new college-football playoff format, a system that marks the first change in how a major sport decides its championship since Super Bowl I, and one that could break all-time cable-audience marks.

LOW-KEY MILESTONE

But ESPN isn’t airing any big television specials or series to commemorate the occasion, as was the case when the programmer turned 25 and then 30. ESPN president John Skipper pointed toward a more low-key celebration to mark the event.

“I’m sure we’ll have some sort of [internal] town hall thing and people will talk about it,” Skipper said. “It is right around the time of the employee picnic, so I think it will be an internal situation. There won’t be any program initiative. Our sense is that it matters to us internally. It’s more important as a business story, but we’re more excited about the start of football season.”

Why shouldn’t Skipper be pumped? The lengths to which Dish went to promote the launch of the SEC Network shows how excited the satellite-TV provider is to team with college football’s most powerful conference and the sport’s biggest player.

With all major distributors except Cablevision Systems on board (as of press time), the SEC Network counts more than 62 million subscribers and is available to more than 95 million homes, making it one of the largest network launches in cable history.

Launching the SEC Network is in line with ESPN’s approach to new ventures. It hasn’t shied away from trying new things, like the WatchESPN initiative that launched a few years ago. The app platform is now available to some 75 million homes across the nation.

“Our goal, and I tell people I’m tired of hearing it internally, is that I want to do the very dynamic thing and I want to be the leader in risk-taking and innovation,” Skipper said. “Those are usually two things that don’t go hand in hand when you are the company leader, looking to protect [what you have]. The insurgents look to do more of the new stuff and risk-taking. We want to take that away and say we are doing more.

“I don’t see us as being 35 [years old],” Skipper added. “We refuse to grow up and mature. We want to keep innovating and taking the risks.”

It’s a bit easier to take risks, though, when you have the foundation that ESPN has. It has been an industry leader in presenting college sports, not just football, for decades and has been just as impactful in its coverage of the National Football Leauge, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

Fox Sports I launched a year ago and was predicted by many to become “the next big thing” in sports broadcasting. A year later, though, FS1 is still struggling to find its footing in a landscape saturated with all sorts of never-ending sports programming. NBC Sports has its own cable network, and CBS Sports does, too. Throw in the fact that MLB and the NFL, NBA and NHL all have league-specific networks, and it has become increasingly difficult to make an impactful splash.

That’s what makes the launch of the SEC Network such an intriguing venture. A network dedicated to a collegiate conference is not a new idea. The Pac-12 and Big Ten each have their own networks, and ESPN has the Longhorn Network for the University of Texas.

“I think the ratings for the SEC Network outside the [SEC] territory are going to shock people,” Skipper said. “It’s not going to be in just the 11 SEC states. That makes no sense.”

ESPN, however, does not have complete control over the conference’s programming. CBS, which has a longterm deal with the SEC that goes through 2023, gets the first choice of which games will be televised each week on what has been the highest-rated college football package on any network in the last five years.

“They are accurate when they say that they have a deal with the SEC where they get the pick every week,” Skipper said. “They get the top pick, subject to some limitations, so they can’t pick Alabama every week. They have a good game from the SEC every week, but the good news is that we’ll have three or four good games every week and another three or four on the other ESPN networks. So I’m happy with our position. We do what we do, and they do what they do.”

The SEC Network also has some familiar faces. Veteran play-by-play man Brent Musberger will be joined by Jesse Palmer as the lead team calling the games. Tim Tebow, Greg McElroy and Marcus Spears are analysts on its SEC Nation studio show, hosted by Joe Tessitore.

FAMILIAR FACES

“Our goal is to produce a very high-quality conference network,” Skipper said. “The Big Ten and Pac-12 do good jobs, but our model is the ESPN networks. When we put the Longhorn Network on air there were challenges in distribution because of lack of games. But everyone is impressed with the quality of production, studio shows, programming, etc. If we’re looking to emulate anything, it will be ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

“I see more similarity to those networks than anyone else,” he added. “And we’ll have a higher volume of live games. What we are emulating, though, is the fact that we have Brent Musberger and Jesse Palmer.”

During the first four weeks of the season the SEC Network is broadcasting one game involving every school and will be at each of the conference’s 14 stadiums. The network will air more than football, though. It expects to broadcast 160 basketball games, nearly 100 baseball games and 50 softball games as well as volleyball and soccer matches.

Collecting a reported $1.40 per subscriber in monthly fees within the Southeastern Conference’s 11-state footprint and 25 cents beyond those boundaries, ESPN has added more green to its coffers and those of parent, The Walt Disney Co.

It should all make for an interesting viewing and what should be a great way to mark ESPN’s 35th anniversary. Keeping the content on its flagship networks fresh and lively may prove to be a challenge at times, but ESPN has done well in terms of breaking new ground.

FOCUS ON QUALITY

“We want to keep things fresh by making everything high-quality,” Skipper said. “We launched [Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons-helmed website] Grantland, which is long-form sports journalism; FiveThirtyEight [the website helmed by political statistics guru Nate Silver], a push forward for data and numbers in sports; and the 30 for 30 series.

“We can’t fight saturation but we’re producing more content than ever. We’re living in a world with more content than ever.”

Part of that content was the WatchESPN initiative for mobile devices. According to Skipper, 44 million minutes of World Cup soccer was “consumed” on WatchESPN.

World Cup records were not limited to digital. The 2014 event was the most-viewed World Cup ever on English-language TV in the U.S. Buoyed by ESPN’s record 18.2 million for the U.S.-Portugal “Group of Death” match and the 17.3 million who saw Germany lift the trophy with its 1-0 win over Argentina on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and the broadcaster averaged 4.56 million viewers for the 64 matches. Viewership was up 39% and 96%, respectively, over the 3.27 million in 2010 and 2.32 million from Germany in 2006.

The 2014 World Cup marked the end of ESPN’s run with the world’s most popular sporting event. The programmer is still on the pitch, though, with a new deal with Major League Soccer, the U.S. men’s national team and Euro 2016, among other futbol properties.

“We remain committed to the growth of soccer, and our presentation of the World Cup clearly demonstrated that,” Skipper said.

Improving on the WatchESPN experience, whether it’s via the SEC Network, Sunday Night Baseball or cable’s top franchise, Monday Night Football, remains a priority for Skipper moving forward.

“Watch ESPN is going to be increasingly important,” Skipper said. “Mobile devices are rapidly overtaking desktop computers, and we have to be there. I could suggest that the 35-year era has been the pay television era. Going forward, pay television is still critical but it’s a more complicated landscape, and we have to make sure that we are playing in those complicated places.

“If you download the [WatchESPN] app and authenticate it, it is a fabulous experience,” Skipper continued. “The part that I’m not satisfied with is that it’s still hard to do. The service is fabulous and the quality is great. We just have to get it to more people.”

With the latest rollouts, the product of expanded carriage renewals inked as part of far-reaching deals Disney struck earlier this summer, the WatchESPN suite of services became available to subscribers of Mediacom Communications, Suddenlink Communications, the National Cable Television Cooperative and the National Telco Television Consortium last week, increasing its roster to 75 million homes.

DirecTV is the only major provider that doesn’t have a contract to supply the WatchESPN products.

Adding more WatchESPN subs by year-end would be a big plus for the network. ESPN will televise the College Football Playoff — a 12-year, $5.6 billion deal gives it media rights through 2026 — as well as a majority of the bowl games played.

All told, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ABC, broadband portal ESPN, the SEC Network, the Longhorn Network, ESPN Radio and highlights service Goal Line will present more than 450 college-football games during the 2014 regular season, which will then culminate in the bowls and the inaugural College Football Playoff, featuring a pair of semifinal contests with the winners meeting at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to crown a new champion.

Many expect the playoff games to challenge, if not surpass, the 27 million who watched Auburn top Oregon in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, the most-watched telecast in cable history.

“Few events are more meaningful than these games,” Skipper said. “This represents a seminal moment in college football and we could not be more pleased to be a part of it.”

It’s also another way ESPN has tried to stay ahead of the competition.

“We have to continue to serve the fan,” Skipper said. “We have to take into account that the fan wants instantaneous highlights and they can do it on any mobile device. We were the first network where you could watch live games on your iPhone, iPad and desktop. You have to find new ways to create business.”

Finding new ways to create hasn’t been much of a problem for the all-sports network. It has been the industry standard for 35 years. Based on Skipper’s vision and what the network has been able to accomplish so far, the next 35 years should be just as exciting and innovative.

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