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Rise and Decline of ESPN

Rise and Decline of ESPN

The Rise and Decline of ESPN

Tim Benton

If you look at all the sporting news in the last 50 years, nothing compares to the rise, the influence, and the power that ESPN held with national and international sports, so why has it taken such a precipitous fall in such a short time?

In 1978 ESPN was founded by Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott Rasmussen, over time it grew from just a site that covered the New England Whalers to covering all of the sports teams in Connecticut, these included the Bristol Red Sox and the Connecticut Huskies.

When it first started only 20% of all homes had cable, building up a business and marketing what then was a new concept, it was a rather daunting task, this set forward when Bill and Scott Rasmussen went into business with Eagan and his associate Bob Beyus, together they started up Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESP).

What brought the company into public awareness was when they signed a contract with NCAA, they agreed to broadcast their games for two years, this, in turn, caused a rise viewership, for people started to look for the cable that also had ESP as part of their line up. The greatest break came 1979 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, the two-star attractions were Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, this is what is viewed as setting the company then called ESP on the path to what it would become within a few years. To make sure they had a name that would not be mistaken in any way with the big three, ABC, CBS and NBC, they added a “N” to their name, thus was born ESPN.

On September 7, 1979, ESPN launched their first satellite broadcast, they had just connected to the satellite only five minutes before their first broadcast, had hired in Lee Leonard and George Grande to run their new show named Sportscenter. In 1982, they moved on to professional sports, broadcasting NBA games with the contract for six years. They then signed up to broadcast some games for the USFL, in 1987 signed a contract for partial rights to broadcast NFL games, setting up the 19-year Monday Night ESPN Football. In 1990 moved on to sign partial rights with Major League Baseball, and from 2002 through 2004 were broadcasting games for all four of the Professional sports leagues in the US.

The 1990’s also saw ESPN sign on top named sportscasters, saw ESPN radio grow, started ESPN 2, and began to broadcast Sportsnight. During this same time, they signed rights to broadcast college games,  opened up ESPNews, acquired Classic Sports Network renaming it ESPN Classic. At this point, Disney purchased ESPN, saw more growth with their connecting with ABC Sports, created Skycam, and started broadcasting for the Arena Football League. They also expanded to international markets with ESPN International, soon becoming the largest sports broadcasting site in the world, they also picked up markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and acquired the Canadian sports channels TDN and RDS from Labatt.

In the early 2000’s until 2015 they enjoyed the unchallenged spot at the top of their field. It was when all seemed fine that they started to change from being an apolitical sports site to one infusing their reporting with politics, this in my opinion started when they passed out the reward to Katlyn Jennings, a person who has not been involved in any sport for over 30 years, moved on to support Black Lives Matter, started to focus on Athletes that supported this group, then moved even further to make public statements about the US presidential elections. This caused a lot of viewers to be turned off, then was further compounded with them supporting athletes like San Francisco’s Kaepernick, had commentators on the air during games and afterward switching from comments about the game to political commentary. When questioned the leadership of ESPN openly admitted to bringing in politics and infusing it with sports. The reaction to this was rather sudden, if you look at polling done with CNN, you find a precipitous drop in their ratings in 2016, experienced a 9 percent drop in each primetime and total-day viewership year-to-year. In addition, they also had the lowest ratings in 9 years and a 12% drop from the previous year (

Did the ratings drop and fan reaction to this start in 2016? I would say not, having Beyoncé in the end of the 2015 Super Bowl half time show raise her hand in support of Black Lives Matter showing the Black Power solute, turned a lot of people off, rather than reject this, ESPN stood by her and issued support, then in 2016 doubled down and started to bring in and allow their commentators to delve into the political field, many Americans rejected this, they found sports was a refuge from this, did not wish to watch a game and continue to experience this. Not only ESPN was effected, this reaction from fans also has grown against the NFL, people have turned off the game, they did not tune in to listen to political attacks and commentary, if they wanted to do that there were plenty of news sites offering this, people as a rule tune into sports to escape this for a couple hours a day.

Is this a downward spiral for ESPN and the NFL? I don’t think so, like it or not, businesses are not in place to make controversial decisions, offending and losing fans when they are in the entertainment field is a sure-fire way to lose viewership, either they will make changes or will continue to see their numbers continue to drop.

In regard to ESPN, as long as Disney and John Skipper remain in control and continue to try to control and push a political narrative, and John Skipper continues to allow political debates to be injected into the game, this is after all that he did while in control of Rolling Stone, ESPN will continue to see a drop in US viewers. But I think in the end Disney has stockholders that will demand either a switch is made in management or a change of policy, the question is how long will it take?


About The Author

Timothy Benton

Student of history, a journalist for the last 2 years. Specialize in Middle East History, more specifically modern history with the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Also, a political commentator has been a lifetime fan of politics.

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