ESPN: A Closer Look


ESPN calls itself “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”. While this is probably true of the network, over the years it has become less of a true sports journalism entity and more of an entertainment outlet, in that its main focus is to promote itself. Every avenue of ESPN, from its multiple television channels, to its website, to its magazine, all aim to drive its viewers to keep coming back for more. A closer look at ESPN shows that the network does this in a variety of ways.

For one, ESPN will utilize whatever its main topic of coverage is at a given time to promote the network as a whole. An example of this would be that currently the most popular topic on ESPN is the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament. One of the commercials the network is currently airing shows a montage-style collection of highlights from past memorable tournament games. However, the commercial is for ESPN as a whole, not just for the tournament. In the commercial, the highlights roll and at the end, a message comes up telling viewers to download the ESPN app for their smart phone or tablet.

This is a strong example of ESPN promoting itself because essentially, it is using one sport to promote all sports. In other words, it is using all of the “hype” surrounding the tournament as an avenue to keep viewers more connected to the entire network, which includes all of the sports it covers. ESPN recognizes that people will subconsciously get caught up in all of the March Madness and thus, they execute their marketing strategies accordingly.

Another example of the same idea, one that is a bit less subtle, is when ESPN is going to be televising a big rivalry game on a certain day. ESPN will have special programming, such as documentaries on famous rivalries in sports, leading up to that day throughout much of that week. Even if the game to be played is Yankees versus Red Sox, the documentaries might still be about rivalries in different sports, such as boxing or college basketball, because again, the whole idea is to get the viewer more excited about the idea of rivalries in general, and to ensure that that viewer will tune in to the game on ESPN when the matchup occurs. In summary, ESPN is accomplishing its goal from two different angles with this marketing strategy. The show that airs is essentially advertising for a certain game, so it is keeping viewers watching its programming, while at the same time, it is having that program also act as a reminder to the viewer to watch that certain game on the same network.

ESPN also incorporates a lot of “extras” into its programming. “Top Ten Plays” have been a part of SportsCenter for almost as long as the show has been on the air. The somewhat recent extension of this part of the show is the “reigning champion” of the SportsCenter “Top Ten Plays”. In this new system, viewers are able to vote online as to whether the new number one play is better than the previous day’s number one, whichever play receives more votes remains the reigning champion until a better play can beat that one on another day. This is increasing viewership for two reasons. One, it is getting people more involved in the show, as people are more likely to vote on that kind of poll, rather than just a generic opinion or prediction poll, and two, even for the viewers who do not care to vote, “Top Ten Plays” just became that much more interesting for them. The “Top Ten Plays” segment has always been present on SportsCenter, and now ESPN is aiming to improve it in order to gain more approval, as well as ratings, from viewers.

Aside from promoting the games that will be on its own network and striving to make classic SportsCenter more fun for viewers, ESPN also watches out for itself in more serious manners. Out of the four terrestrial television networks that take up most of the NFL television rights, and that pay the league a combined $20.4 billion in those broadcast rights, ESPN is accountable for $8.8 billion of that, nearly half the total. Since ESPN has a very large business partnership with the NFL, there will always be more coverage of, as well as higher priority with, the stories, games, and transactions that pertain to the NFL, than those that pertain to any other league.

Analogously, ESPN no longer has rights to broadcast NHL games, so hockey coverage is very light, if it even makes an appearance on an ESPN show at all. With that being said, there are also plenty of NFL stories that ESPN will actually not cover. There are certain NFL stories that arise that would be in ESPN’s best interest to not cover, precisely because of the partnership and rapport that the network and the league share. For example, stories similar to the following, that come up in the NFL, are ones that ESPN often will not cover nearly as extensively, and also try to avoid covering as much as possible, by putting more focus on its other stories.

In a recent NCAA basketball game between North Carolina State and North Carolina, North Carolina State, and most notably their coach, Mark Gottfried, disputed much of the officiating towards the end of the contest. They lost to North Carolina, 69-67. ESPN’s SportsCenter anchors analyzed the calls Gottfried took issue with, and suggested that North Carolina State may have had a case in their arguments.

In this example, the anchors on ESPN not only tended to agree with Coach Gottfried, but also went a step further by deeply analyzing the key points Gottfried was upset about, and how and why they agreed with him. This would never happen with the NFL, because just letting the story out that there may have been bad officiating makes the NFL look bad, which in turn, would hurt ESPN. Plus, having ESPN side with an opposing point of view, while the network and the NFL are partners, would not be a good business decision for ESPN, considering the amount of money it has invested in the NFL.

Clearly, ESPN has created its own level when it comes to covering sports. Most of this is because it is, in fact, always looking out for its own best interest. After a closer look it appears that ESPN seems to be on top of what it is doing with all of this. It is succeeding in having its viewers feeling the need to come back for more, and furthermore, those viewers love the fact that they need to come back for more.

Opinion by Josh Drinkwine


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Photo by ross Cidlowski – Flickr License

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