ESPN poised for further growth

Net's hold over sports world unparalleled in cable

Any sports fan watching even a few minutes of college football this bowl season has likely been exposed to ESPN. And if the cable channel seems nearly ubiquitous now, barring an orchestrated challenge (Comcast, anyone?), its powerful hold over sports looks destined to grow.

Of the 34 college bowl games crammed in from Dec. 19 to Jan. 7 (that figure alone is staggering), ESPN or one of its ancillary channels will televise 24 — and provide radio coverage on half those that it doesn’t own.

That near-monopoly will become virtually complete a year from now, when every Bowl Championship Series game except the Rose Bowl (which remains on sister broadcaster ABC) migrates to the Disney-owned cable juggernaut.

Slowly, steadily, ESPN has expanded its tentacles to engulf every aspect of the sports business. Having already essentially rewritten the way sports are analyzed and covered, having dictated game schedules and kickoff times, the channel is now branching out to putty in the few gaps it doesn’t already occupy.

Not all of those efforts are necessarily bad. ESPN is touting its newsgathering skills with sports-focused websites devoted to major markets (launching, for example), hiring sportswriters and attempting to fill a void left by layoff-stricken newspapers. The channel has also aired a series of mostly laudable documentaries, “30 for 30,” to commemorate its tri-decade anniversary.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of critics who see ESPN as a corrosive force — among them blogger Katharine Rust, who recently argued on Huffington Post that ESPN is “bad” for sports, consumers and news.

In terms of sports culture, ESPN has helped foster an unsavory attitude — promoting a showboating, me-first mentality, where every kid wants his 15 seconds on “SportsCenter.” Like cable news, it also champions a level of coverage overkill perhaps best exemplified by the two mind-numbing days of blather the channel devotes to the NFL draft.

As for consumers, ESPN is another reason for some to advocate a la carte cable pricing. After all, little old ladies who couldn’t care less whether Boise State deserves to be in a premiere bowl are still shelling out over $3 a month for ESPN and its assorted channels — more than any other entity. Multiply that fee by 98 million subscribers and you have an annual war chest of more than $4 billion before the first ad is sold — as well as the makings of a pretty spectacular business model.

The hope now in some quarters is that Comcast will combine NBC Sports — which it will acquire as part of NBC Universal — with the Golf Channel and Versus to create an entity capable of mounting a legitimate national challenge to ESPN. An early test will come before the NBC-Comcast deal closes, with bidding for rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics — one of the few major events that remains outside ESPN’s grasp.

Naturally, ESPN has pooh-poohed any concerns about the migration of sports off broadcast platforms, leaving the 13% or so of the U.S. that hasn’t opted to subscribe to cable or satellite TV — about 16 million homes — out of the loop. And given ESPN’s record “Monday Night Football” ratings this season, it’s become difficult to argue that people clamoring to see games are missing out.

Despite its enviable competitive position, like every other modern media behemoth, ESPN must be mindful of its vulnerabilities. For starters, having broadcasters aggressively push for cash from cable operators might compel renewed analysis of relative value to viewers and whether gaudy payments to ESPN are truly justified. The web-based expansion of its news operations is also an unproven venture, especially given how a journalistic ethos contrasts with the bombastic tone of its “He could go all the way” on-air talent.

Given ESPN’s economic clout, the channel seems likely to continue trying to corner the market on major events — but that strategy, too, could yield its own unanticipated blowback.

For now, ESPN’s dominance appears unassailable — and unequaled within any other cable niche. Yet the coming decade should test even its ability a sidestep threats — a bit like a breakaway runner who risks getting tripped up or blindsided just short of the goal line.

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