The ESPN Effect

Exploring the Worldwide Leader in Sports

by John McGuire (Volume editor) Greg G. Armfield (Volume editor) Adam Earnheardt (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook 333 Pages


ESPN has grown from a start-up cable network in a small Connecticut town to a $50 billion global enterprise. For the past 35 years, ESPN – along with its sister networks – has been the preeminent source for sports for millions around the globe. Its 24-hour coverage of sports news and programming has cultivated generations of sports consumers, utilizing multiple ESPN platforms for news and entertainment. The pervasiveness of the company’s branded content has influenced how sports fans think and feel about the people who play and control these games. In The ESPN Effect, leading sports media scholars examine ESPN and its impact on culture, sports journalism, audience, and the business of sports media. The final part of the book considers the future of ESPN, beginning with an interview with Chris LaPlaca, ESPN senior vice president.
As the first academic text dedicated to the self-proclaimed «worldwide leader in sports», this book contributes to the growth of sports media research and provides a starting point for scholars examining the present and future impact of ESPN.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
  • Section One: Business and the ESPN Effect
  • Chapter One: In the Beginning: The Rasmussens and the Launch of ESPN
  • Chapter Two: The Mouse that Scored: Disney’s Reconfiguration of ESPN and ABC Sports
  • Chapter Three: Changing the Competitive Environment for Sports Broadcast Rights
  • Chapter Four: Digging the Moat: The Political Economy of ESPN’s Cable Carriage Fees
  • Chapter Five: ESPN Deportes: Numero Uno?
  • Section Two: Race, Gender, and the ESPN Effect
  • Chapter Six: “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” as Race Relations Reporter: Reconsidering the Role of ESPN
  • Chapter Seven: Race in the Kingdom
  • Chapter Eight: ESPN’s Mythological Rhetoric of Title IX
  • Chapter Nine: espnW: Catering to a New Audience
  • Chapter Ten: The ESPN Effect: Representation of Women in 30 for 30 Films
  • Chapter Eleven: ESPN The Magazine “Body Issue”: Challenging Yet Reinforcing Traditional Images of Masculinity and Femininity in Sport
  • Section Three: Journalism and the ESPN Effect
  • Chapter Twelve: Sprawling Hagiography: ESPN’s 30 for 30 Series and the Untangling of Sports Memories
  • Chapter Thirteen: Framing the Bubble: How ESPN Coverage of the NCAA Tournament Bubble Changed from 2010 to 2014
  • Chapter Fourteen: Lipsyte, the League, and the “Leader”: An Ombudsman’s Tale
  • Chapter Fifteen: Power Through the People: ESPN and the Impact of User-Circulated Emotional Value on News Efficacy
  • Chapter Sixteen: North of the Border: The Influence of ESPN on TSN and Sportsnet in Canada
  • Section Four: The ESPN Effect and Its Audience
  • Chapter Seventeen: ESPN and the Fantasy Sport Experience
  • Chapter Eighteen: Missed Opportunity: The Decline of Athletics on ESPN and America’s Passive Culture
  • Section Five: The Future of the ESPN Effect
  • Chapter Nineteen: Facilitating Conversations Through Sport: An Interview with Chris LaPlaca, ESPN Senior Vice President
  • Chapter Twenty: Afterword: Challenging the Worldwide Leader in Sports
  • References
  • About the Editors
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

← X | XI → Acknowledgments

The editors extend their thanks and gratitude to the many authors in this text for their work and patience during the production of this text. We would also like to thank Mary Savigar and Sophie Appel at Peter Lang for their efforts in bringing this project to reality.

The editors would like to thank Associate Professor Ray Murray of Oklahoma State University for his assistance in reviewing chapters for this text.← XI | XII →

August 1980. A college student moves back into his dorm room for a new semester. Hooking the cable up to his 13-inch black-and-white television, the aspiring sportscaster is about to have a life-changing moment. When he turns on the set and starts spinning around the cable-box dial, he realizes there is a new channel on the system: the sports network with the funny name he had heard and read about for months. There was Canadian football, with 12 guys running around on a field that seemed a mile long. There were replays of college football games morning, noon, and night. Then there was that SportsCenter show, with a bunch of guys who seemed to be just out of college. Guys named Mees and Ley and Berman (he was the one who had all the crazy nicknames like “John Mayberry RFD”). There they were, on his television at 1:30 in the morning, talking about nothing but sports. And that college student was absorbing every word. He was not alone. All across the United States, as quickly as cable companies could string or lay cable, children, teenagers, and adults of all ages were getting their first glimpse of this new world of sports programming.

During its first 35 years, ESPN (and its sister networks) has been the preeminent source for sports for millions around the globe. Its never-ending, 24-hour barrage of sports news and programming has cultivated generations of sports consumers, using multiple ESPN platforms for news and entertainment. From having once relied on Australian Rules Football and tractor pulls to attract audiences, ESPN has held the programming rights to every major U.S. professional ← XIII | XIV → and collegiate sports league at one time or another during its history. The network went from being a blip in the media universe to a multibillion-dollar enterprise whose reach extended across nearly every continent.

The people on ESPN also became part of U.S. pop culture. In the 1990s, Dick Vitale and Jimmy Valvano showed up on an episode of The Cosby Show. Chris Berman played a big part in a Hootie and the Blowfish sports-themed music video. In the 2000s, John Anderson took his SportsCenter humor and brought it to the ABC competition show Wipeout. ESPN’s anchors and personalities are seemingly everywhere in commercials, pitching everything from fast food to diet products. When there is a sports-themed movie made, ESPN seems to be the network covering the fictitious event, from Kingpin to Dodgeball. ESPN even reimagined itself through its “This is SportsCenter” spots, portraying the network’s Bristol, Connecticut headquarters as a storybook place where ESPN anchors spend all day working with athletes and team mascots.

ESPN has become a destination for movie stars promoting their latest projects across all of the network’s different platforms. In turn, ESPN created an event called “The ESPYS,” trying to capitalize on the synergy of bringing celebrities, musicians, and athletes together for a gala awards show that would fill programming slots during the dog days of summer (before National Football League training camps opened).

But there are far more important economic, social, cultural, and mass communication impacts of ESPN that must be studied and debated. That is what this book is about.


If there is one chapter in ESPN’s history that perhaps crystalizes the theme of this text, it is the story of Playmakers. The fictional episodic series that aired from August to November of 2003 was seen as another step in ESPN’s efforts to attract and build viewership beyond its traditional sports events and information programming. The series, in the tradition of prime-time soap operas, proclaimed itself as a realistic look at life in and out of the locker room for members of a professional football team called the Cougars. Fogel (2012) noted the series used many hot-button social issues (e.g., homosexuality, illicit drug use, domestic violence) as plot lines away from the playing field while also discussing on-field controversies (e.g., use of performance-enhancing substances, violent plays resulting in life-threatening injuries). Critics at the time of the series premier noted Playmakers bore some resemblance to Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, examining the darker side of America’s most popular sport. Reviews of the series were generally positive from those who critiqued entertainment fare. Tom Shales (2003) of the ← XIV | XV → Washington Post noted, “It’s well enough acted and written to sustain interest as a story of professional people under almost preposterous pressure” (p. C1). Ratings (at least for a cable television network) were also seen at exceeding the network’s expectations (Peyser, 2004).

One entity saw Playmakers as neither positive nor realistic. The National Football League (NFL) viewed the program as an attack on the league (even though the Cougars were never portrayed as being part of the NFL) and those who ran the game. League officials and the league’s players’ union offered criticism of the show after its debut. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue argued the salacious storylines were a poor reflection on the game and the people who actually play it (Romano, 2003). One NFL team owner, Philadelphia Eagles’ Jeffrey Lurie, was especially outspoken in his criticism of the series. Lurie cited one episode that depicted a Cougars’ player using cocaine during halftime of a game. Lurie suggested such depictions (even in a fictional story) would end up damaging the reputation of the NFL and its players. Lurie then suggested the following about the corporation that owned ESPN: “Disney’s brand is Mickey Mouse, Magic Kingdom. How would they like it if Minnie Mouse was portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?” (Brookover, 2003, para. 7). Others associated with the sport, most notably former player Deion Sanders, praised the series for its realism.

The portrayal of players was just one of many issues raised about Playmakers. The treatment of women was another. While the series offered up gratuitous sex scenes just like other prime-time shows in the soap opera genre, critics attacked Playmakers because of the frequent objectification of women in the series, depicting many female characters as one-dimensional, powerless characters that lived only through their athlete husbands or boyfriends.

Playmakers even managed to stir up trouble for ESPN with journalistic colleagues. Thea Andrews, who co-hosted an ESPN2 program at the time called Cold Pizza, appeared in the series as reporter Samantha Lovett. From a journalistic standpoint, Andrews’s participation in the ESPN series while working as a host on an ESPN news program suggested an obvious ethical problem to some in the journalism industry. The Association for Women in Sports Media also complained that the character of Samantha Lovett (and other female reporters depicted in the series) was stereotyped in a way that denigrated those women actually working in the field. ESPN’s response justified its stance by arguing other journalists had played fictional roles in entertainment without jeopardizing their credibility and that Andrews was not portraying herself in the show (Overman, 2003).

Despite obtaining the ratings and critical reviews desired for Playmakers, ESPN punted the show from its schedule in February 2004 after only one season (Peyser, 2004). Ironically, the decision came only days after the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII, in which one of Ms. Jackson’s breasts was exposed during the halftime show. Media observers ← XV | XVI → immediately seized upon this news, suggesting that the NFL had actually forced ESPN to pull the plug on the series (a charge that ESPN denied). One could not help but make that assumption. While Playmakers represented experimental programming for ESPN, the network’s association with the NFL was its bread and butter. From the network’s early days and televising the league’s annual draft to ESPN’s telecast of its first NFL game in 1987, the network had worked to associate itself with the country’s most popular sports league. By 2003, ESPN’s financial commitment to the NFL was $600 million a year for rights to nearly 20 games a year plus ancillary programming (Fatsis & Pope, 1998).

Just this one piece of ESPN’s 35-year history is instructional on many levels about what we believe is the ESPN effect. First, we note that ESPN is a business, focused on generating revenues for its parent company (Disney). ESPN also sits at the confluence of what McChesney (2004) called the media-sport complex: where media companies such as ESPN are critical business partners with sports leagues such as the NFL, and where the financial success of each entity is highly reliant upon the other. This is true of any sports media entity that partners with professional or collegiate sports leagues for game telecasts. ESPN’s actions in the case of Playmakers represented the network’s true bottom line as a business entity focused on business. As discussed in the early chapters of the text, ESPN’s effect on the sports media business has been extraordinary. Yet we also believe ESPN wields influence beyond the bottom line. This is another aspect of the ESPN effect: The pervasiveness of ESPN’s branded content across multiple media platforms, delivering programs and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to influence how sports fans think and feel about the people who play and control these games. Playmakers generated plenty of controversy (and attention) for ESPN, from the show’s portrayal of professional athletes to the ethics of sports journalism. ESPN’s approach to sports coverage, from Jeremy Lin and LeBron James to Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, has often morphed beyond the discussion of athletic performances to broader societal debates. As ESPN continues expanding through new and social media, the effect will only expand in coming years.


The editors have shaped the present volume under five sections exploring the business of sports media, gender and race, journalism, audience, and the future of ESPN. The first part tackles ESPN’s impact on the sports media business and the economics of sports. Chapters by McGuire and Armfield and Stein examine ESPN’s corporate status, from its earliest days to its eventual takeover by Disney. Fortunato and Corrigan provide background about the economic strategies that vaulted ESPN into a place of economic prominence among all cable networks. ← XVI | XVII → Finally, the section concludes with Puente examining ESPN’s struggles with its Spanish-language network, ESPN Deportes.

The second section of the text focuses on ESPN’s role in culture with regards to how society may think about sports in terms of race and gender. Daniels begins the discussion by exploring the role ESPN has taken covering race, and Sipocz furthers the discussion while analyzing ESPN’s coverage of two of the most popular and controversial issues the network covered where race became a central theme. The ESPN effect is also covered with regards to gender. Hartman analyzes the coverage of the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Wolter explores how female athletes are portrayed on espnW, and Lavelle analyzes the representation of women in ESPNs 30 for 30 film series, which also covered the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Moving on to other ESPN outlets, Kian, Smith, Lee, and Sweeney examine marketing and branding of ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue” through ESPN’s various multimedia platforms while analyzing how ESPN frames athletes in these issues.

The third section focuses on the journalistic efforts of ESPN. Returning to ESPNs 30 for 30 series, Billings and Blackistone analyze five 30 for 30 episodes and how such programming shapes our memories. Lambert explores the effect of ESPN’s coverage of college basketball and how the framing of ESPN’s coverage influences viewer perceptions of the NCAA Tournament bubble and what schools are selected. Staton then examines ESPN’s relationship with PBS’s respected public affairs series Frontline while investigating the issue of concussions in football. Jay gives insight into the multimedia presence of ESPN. The section wraps up with an examination by Naraine and Abeza of ESPN’s impact on Canada’s TSN (The Sports Network).

The fourth section considers ESPN’s impact on the participation of its audience with network content. Ruihley, Hardin, and Billings demonstrate one of the ways ESPN has expanded its empire into society through the world of fantasy sports. Gentry and Castleberry offer a critical examination of ESPN’s coverage of certain sporting events over others and how the authors believe it has contributed to the decline in physical fitness in the United States.

The final section of the text considers the future of ESPN, beginning with an interview conducted by Billings with Chris LaPlaca, ESPN senior vice president. In the last chapter, Earnheardt provides an overview of the book and discusses future directions for research about ESPN.

For those in sports media research, the 2000s and 2010s have been a time of significant growth, both in the quantity and quality of scholarship being produced and published. As the first academic text dedicated to the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” the editors hope this scholarship will contribute to this growth and provide a starting point for scholars examining present and future impacts of ESPN.

Let the games begin.← XVII | XVIII →


← 2 | 3 → CHAPTER ONE

The omnipresent nature of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) on today’s media landscape stands in stark contrast to the company’s start-up in 1979. What began as an idea for a cable sports network that would serve the state of Connecticut became one of the world’s biggest media companies. This chapter offers a case study of the entrepreneurial aspects of ESPN’s start-up covering 1978 through 1981. Particular attention is given to the roles Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott played as nascent entrepreneurs. Through the use of published first-person accounts and media reports during that period, this case study considers how events in ESPN’s start-up years contributed to what became a $50 billion business (Badenhausen, 2014).


Research examining nascent entrepreneurs has expanded during the 2000s. Although there are multiple definitions for the concept, this research uses Parker and Belghitar’s (2006) definition of “individuals who are actively involved in starting a new business” (p. 81). Parker and Belghitar surveyed nascent entrepreneurs to learn what factors influenced outcomes of these start-up ventures. The researchers’ findings confirmed a general truth about all forms of entrepreneurism: Having deep financial pockets made a significant difference between success and failure. ← 3 | 4 → Their research showed that the availability of financial resources (i.e., adequate amount of start-up capital) allowed these new ventures time to sustain through early struggles. Parker and Belghitar (2006) also found many of these nascent entrepreneurs had experience in the fields they were trying to get their venture started in.


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
sport chris laplace sport journalism modern culture sport culture
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVIII, 333 pp.

Biographical notes

John McGuire (Volume editor) Greg G. Armfield (Volume editor) Adam Earnheardt (Volume editor)

John McGuire (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. His work has been published in the Journal of Sports Media, Communication and Sport, International Journal of Sport Communication, and the Journal of Radio and Audio Media. Greg G. Armfield (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at New Mexico State University. His work has been published in the Journal of Communication, the Journal of Media and Religion, Speaker and Gavel, and the Journal of Communication and Religion. Adam Earnheardt (PhD, Kent State University) is Chair and Associate Professor of Communication Studies in the Department of Communication at Youngstown State University. He is the author of Judging Athlete Behaviors: Exploring Possible Predictors of Television Viewer Judgments of Athlete Antisocial Behaviors (2008) and has co-edited several books including Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium (2012).


Title: The ESPN Effect