With as many as 50 million believers across America, it qualifies as a major religion, but what the faithful seem to love most about ESPN is that it has stayed true to its roots as a cult.
Fans of the all-sports cable TV channel relish the fact that not everybody "gets" ESPN. Not everybody can recite or even comprehend the secret mantra--"Back, back, back!"--that proclaims one's status as an acolyte.
Retaining its sly, insider appeal is no mean trick for a network that in 18 years has grown to reach more than 73 million U.S. households, or roughly the same proportion of the population as can locate Connecticut on a map.
The trick can only get tougher as ESPN, now firmly under the wing of parent Walt Disney Co., stretches from sportscasting into retail stores, a biweekly sports magazine, ESPN-themed restaurants, video games and who knows what other ventures.
Brand extension is never a zero-risk strategy.
For a niche player such as ESPN, one potential danger arises from what might be called the Groucho Paradox, based on the Marx remark "I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."
A sense of exclusivity gives the brand part of its zest, and how exclusive can it be if every toddler at the mall starts sporting an ESPN golf cap?
But partly because of the involvement of Disney--the king of brand extension--experts say the downside is limited.
"Unless they were to have a major fiasco that would reflect back on the core property, the risks are primarily financial," says Stephen A. Greyser, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.
In other words, even if the side ventures lose money, there should be little threat to the main broadcasting business.
What a business it is. With estimated net advertising revenue of $440 million this year, ESPN is "the most economically successful franchise in the history of cable TV," declares analyst Jeff Flathers of Paul Kagan Associates.
Its penetration among young, upscale males is tops in the industry. "They're an advertiser's dream, which is one reason why people pay top dollar to be there," Flathers says.
Disney Chairman (and sports-nut-in-chief) Michael Eisner said as much when he called ESPN the key to his 1996 purchase of its then-parent, Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
With Eisner looking over their shoulders, everyone involved in the ESPN brand extension is being careful to milk this cash cow gently.
"We won't do anything without quality," vows ESPN President Steve Bornstein.
On the other hand, ESPN can't move so deliberately that it lets its well-financed rivals gain ground.
Fox SportsNet, News Corp.'s regional sports network, already reaches nearly 50 million households and is growing fast. And Sports Illustrated--the main target of the ESPN magazine slated for launch next March--is nipping at its rival's broadcast heels with its CNN-SI cable sports channel
But the beauty of ESPN's brand extension, executives say, is that it also plays defense: If the new ventures tighten ESPN's grip on the sports lobe of America's brain, they may strengthen the appeal of the network's sporting events and news programs.
The ESPN culture being what it is, it's no surprise that the executive directly responsible for the care and feeding of the brand name has two bum knees from aggressive skiing on Mt. Hood, plus a crooked finger from an old football injury.
The only mild surprise is that her background is in packaged goods, not broadcasting.
But Judy Fearing, senior vice president of marketing, says the same rules apply to ESPN as to her former employers, Nabisco and PepsiCo.
"Every great brand has an equally strong brand personality," Fearing says. "If you're not unique, you're generic."
She cites one hot-selling item to illustrate how ESPN hopes to burnish its hip image even in the mass-market setting of the new retail outlets: a sweatshirt emblazoned with the crest of the Bristol University School of Football.
To agnostics, the name means nothing. To the cognoscenti, however, it's a clever nod to the fictitious institution of higher learning featured in a hilarious series of promotional spots for ESPN programming. The conceit of the ads, created by Wieden & Kennedy in New York, is that Bristol, as hometown of ESPN, is the hub of the global sports universe.
At the ESPN Grill--the first is set to open next summer in Baltimore--naturally there will be plenty of TVs showing "SportsCenter" or whatever game is playing, but the service staff will also be selected for sports literacy and perhaps a whiff of ESPN's trademark attitude. The knowing, slightly tongue-in-cheek demeanor of ESPN's announcers is an important part of the brand's value. Sure, ESPN dishes out sports news around the clock, but it's the attitude that sets it apart.
"You're not going to last long at ESPN unless you bring that spark," says Seattle Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon, a regular viewer.
Rick Burton of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center calls it "the authenticity vibe."
The vibe's prime exponent is Chris "The Boomer" Berman, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound (more or less) Brown University graduate with a phonographic recall for '60s rock lyrics and other cultural arcana, delivered in breathless, 80-decibel gusts.
Sprinkling his highlight-tape commentary with off-the-wall sitcom references and punning nicknames such as Ben "Winter" Coates and Warren "Goodnight" Moon, Berman comes across as bright and likable--the same as he does in person. "Back, back, back" is the phrase he invariably intones over a shot of an outfielder futilely chasing a home-run ball.
What helps make ESPN tick, says Berman, is partly the aura of Bristol itself, a blue-collar burg of 60,000 convenient to nowhere but Hartford and Waterbury.
"You don't get caught up in the big-city thing," he says.
Berman, who has been with ESPN since its 1979 launch, says that while the network has outgrown cult status, the viewers "still follow you as if you were a secret."
Berman jokes that he has long prodded his bosses to open ESPN stores so that people will stop bugging him for T-shirts and other stuff, but he has some concerns about the thrust beyond broadcasting. "It worries me a little," he says, "but Disney's going to do it with class."
Disney is by no means solely responsible for the brand extension, but it has picked up speed since the merger.
Before Disney, the expansion moves kept mainly to the realm of sports broadcasting--the creation of ESPN International in 1988, the formation of the ESPN Radio network in 1992 and the debut of sister channel ESPN 2 a year later.
The 1995 launch of ESPN SportsZone--one of the most-visited sites on the Internet--was just another way of delivering sports information.
Not so the retail stores or restaurants. They reflect an enlargement of ESPN's mission, but Bornstein--the network chief--insists that process began when he took the helm seven years ago.
"In 1990, we redefined ourselves as a sports experience" rather than just a broadcaster, he says.
"Are we spread too thin?" he asks. "I heard the same nonsense in 1980 when people asked, 'Who wants to watch 24-hour sports?' "
Bornstein acknowledges that there is the risk of muddling ESPN's image. He sees brand consistency as part of his job and prides himself on knowing what doesn't fit.
"It's like the Supreme Court on pornography," he says. "I may not be able to define it exactly, but I know it when I see it."
What doesn't fit? Pro wrestling is one example. ESPN hasn't carried it in years. In the stores, Bornstein says, you won't see an ESPN line of business suits, or even sneakers.
If the new initiatives are done right, ESPN will worm its way even deeper into the nation's consciousness.
A scary thought, considering how deeply it is already embedded.
For pro-sports agent Leigh Steinberg of Newport Beach, the pervasiveness of ESPN hit home when he saw his young son watching a football game. Suddenly, a ball carrier broke into the open.
Instead of just going, "Wow!" the kid launched into Berman's patented phrase from countless nightly highlight videos: "He could . . . go . . . all . . . the . . . way!"
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
ESPN, the powerhouse of cable TV sports, is pushing into an array of other ventures, such as ESPN the Store, which has opened an outlet in the Glendale Galleria, at left. Here is a list of some of ESPN's brand-extension efforts, either planned or already underway:
Venture Description Launch date ESPN Grill Sports-themed restaurants Summer of 1998 ESPN magazine Biweekly sports magazine March 1998 ESPN Almanac Annual sports almanac 1998 ESPN the Store ESPN and licensed sports merchandise September 1997 ESPN SportsZone Internet site April 1995 ESPY Awards Awards show February 1993 X Games Extreme-sports competition Summer of 1995