Big, Bigger, Biggest
Summers, Nick, Newsweek
Byline: Nick Summers
The once-scrappy network has swelled to massive size. But as the highest-priced network on cable TV, is the sports behemoth too big for its own good?
By Nick Summers
It's Dec. 19, 90 minutes before kickoff at Candlestick Park, and the 69,732 fans pouring into the best Monday Night Football match of 2011 want to see a spectacle. Football is American religion, and for the few lucky enough to attend a game, it is a chance to see gods in action and miracles performed. A dozen San Francisco 49ers are rehearsing their explosive movements on the grass, elephantine and precise, a sight that is astonishing to see. Fans are massing just above field level and screaming.
But not for the athletes. They're hollering--"Steeeeeeeeeeeve!"--for the talent of ESPN. The cable-sports juggernaut has built a satellite set for its Monday Night Countdown pregame show off the 20-yard line, and nearby, four of its highly recognizable stars--Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Trent Dilfer, and Stuart Scott--are tossing a football before airtime. Young and Rice, both retired Hall of Fame 49ers, are local heroes; when Young, in cakey TV makeup, arcs a tight spiral to Rice, the Niner faithful go ape like it's for real. "There's more fans here than in the stands," murmurs a photographer.
The glitz and production values here are extreme, with 270 ESPN staffers on hand to choreograph some 35 camera angles--more than the typical Super Bowl had not so very long ago. "Our intensity and urgency in covering sports is just better than anyone else," Scott tells a reporter over the din of the crowd. Monday Night Football is the most venerable franchise in sports television, and for the right to broadcast just 17 games, ESPN recently re-upped its contract with the National Football League, increasing payments by 70 percent, to $1.9 billion per season, through 2021. Tonight's Steelers-49ers matchup will dominate the ratings as the most-watched show on cable all week, with 16.7 million tuning in.
To borrow one of its advertising taglines, this is ESPN: a network as big as the leagues it covers. As a business, ESPN thrives because it is playing a different game than the big public-airwaves networks. NBC and CBS make money from advertising. ESPN does, too, but it takes in even more from cable-subscriber fees--an average of $4.69 per household per month, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Last February, ESPN entered its 100 millionth American home. By comparison, the next costliest national network, TNT, takes in just $1.16 from about as many homes. If this were Pop Warner, the refs would have called the mercy rule by now.
A new president, John Skipper, took over the network on Jan. 1. Promoted from within, he is expected to chart a steady course--but it won't be easy. When one team is running up the score, resentment is inevitable, and in 2012 ESPN finds itself the object of criticism on a variety of fronts. Uniting them all is a sense that "The Worldwide Leader," as its slogan goes, has gotten too big for its own good. By driving up the price of sports-rights packages and passing along the cost to consumers, ESPN helps send monthly cable bills through the roof. And in order to maintain favorable access to athletes, teams, and entire leagues, it is widely accused of downplaying stories that cast sports in a negative light. Live games may lead fans to watch ESPN more and more, but they're seeing less and less of the network they fell in love with.
To find ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., you drive through a lot of unremarkable countryside and stop when you get to the 18-building, 116-acre supercampus with 27 satellites yawning into space. Now almost a city unto itself, this version of ESPN is far removed from the company's founding here, in 1979, by a former play-by-play man for the New England Whalers hockey team. At the time, Bristol seemed a good, cheap place to base a venture that could grow. …