SPECIAL REPORT : THE FOUR-LETTER WORD THAT CHANGED SPORTS : ESPN Has Revolutionized the Medium, and as It Turns 20 Today, Whether That’s Good or Bad Is Open to Debate


The medium is the message.

--Marshall “Boomer” McLuhan


What, in the name of “SportsCenter,” “NFL PrimeTime,” “RPM 2Night” and all else we now know to be sacred, would Marshall McLuhan have made of ESPN?

McLuhan was the Swami of his day and age, only without the goofball nicknames and the over-the-top Howard Cosell impressions. In the 1960s, the controversial media theorist predicted a time when electronic media would be networked into one immense “global village” and argued that the electronic media themselves have far greater impact than the information they dispatch.

McLuhan barely made it to the grand opening of sport’s global village. He died in 1980, just months after ESPN plugged in its first satellite dish and made sports television, for the first time, a round-the-clock, round-the-calendar proposition.


What he missed--besides Dick Vitale’s entire broadcasting career; yes, to everything there is a silver lining--was ESPN’s 20-year growth into a media behemoth that overshadows and overwhelms virtually everything it covers.

ESPN is Marshall McLuhan run amok. It has changed the way sports are consumed and the way sports are played. It has created new sports (the X Games), exploded the popularity of others (college basketball) and turned non-sporting events (the NFL draft, the nightly news) into major viewer attractions. It has created an environment in which the people who report the news can become bigger celebrities than those who make the news, by appearing in commercials that, in many cases, generate more day-after conversation than the sporting events they bumper.

It has also spawned imitators and a new layer of competition, with Fox and CNN, among others, stepping up to the bar with 24-hour sports channels of their own, and inspired a popular prime-time sitcom, “Sports Night.”

“You can make the case that it’s one of the major changes in all of sports, not just sports media, in the last 20 years,” says NBC broadcaster Bob Costas. “It’s changed everything.

“I’m sure it’s changed the metabolism of sports fans, their appetite for highlights. On the one hand, it’s a boon to sports fans because so much of it is available any time you want it, and it’s generally so well-done. It’s also, I think, to a certain extent shrunken the sports world.

“[Before ESPN], if you lived in St. Louis, you might see the Red Sox maybe on the game of the week two or three times a year. You could be a real baseball fan and not really know what Nomar Garciaparra looked like. Now, every team is there, to some extent or another, right in front of you.


“What used to be mostly only local stories have now become of national interest. The Dodgers are still a bigger story in L.A. than anywhere else, but more people in Vermont are familiar with the Dodgers than they ever otherwise would have been.”

Angel pitcher Tim Belcher calls ESPN “an industry source for us, like CNN-Fortune is to investment bankers. It’s where we go for news and get it instantaneously.

“Plus it’s fun. They have fun with it. Sometimes to a fault.”

That is the other, uglier head of the beast. ESPN stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, heavy accent on the entertainment. Journalism is mentioned nowhere in the title.

“Entertainment is the No. 1 thing we’re going after,” says Lee Ann Daly, ESPN senior vice president for marketing. “ESPN’s brand positioning is not as a sports network but as a sports fan. . . . We take our sports very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously.”

That is the mantra that echoes throughout the corridors at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Keep ‘em laughing. Keep ‘em amused. It is a philosophy urged along by short-term gain--instant gratification, a proud ESPN staple--but pitted, long-term, with troublesome potholes.

“SportsCenter,” the nightly news-and-highlights centerpiece of the ESPN portfolio, too often resembles backstage at the Comedy Store: A bunch of too-hip, too-ironic wannabe comedians trying to stifle the utter boredom by trying to top one another with too-inside humor.


Long-term consequence: A whole generation of aspiring sportscasters who believe the quickest way to the big time is to talk dryly and carry a big shtick.

Lodged in between this week’s hot catch phrase and the TelePrompTer’s next “pause . . . now smirk” directive are the even more vexing highlight packages. Monster home runs, monster dunks, monster bombs. When the big and the bombastic become the password at the door at Club SportsCenter, the fundamental and the nuanced are going to get left at the curbside.

Long-term consequence: Why can’t Johnny throw a changeup? Why can’t Johnny hit an open 15-footer? Why does Johnny spin like a top on his head after scoring a touchdown? Hey, Johnny knows what plays on “SportsCenter.”

“ESPN has changed the way sports are now played,” ESPN anchor Steve Levy says. “Absolutely. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

“Look at baseball. So much emphasis in the highlights on power pitching. You see all the big strikeouts. You don’t often see the 81-mile-an-hour curveball that falls off the table.”

Or as Levy’s partner on “NHL 2Night,” Barry Melrose, puts it: “Home runs! Home runs! Home runs! I don’t see a lot of great defensive plays.”


Teamwork is out, give-me-the-rock-and-get-out-of-the-way is in. Sportsmanship is ebbed away at the expense of gamesmanship.

“I’m a firm believer that kids emulate everything they see on television, especially sports,” says New York Post television columnist Phil Mushnick. “ESPN has helped popularize posing at home plate. There’s tons of evidence now that shows teams are losing games every day because guys don’t run to first base. Because it is celebrated on ‘Sports-Center.’

“Just this past spring, I was watching my daughter’s friend play Little League ball, and the kid hits one to deep left-center and--he’s a friend of the family--he stands there posing.

“Now, his coach didn’t teach him to pose. He got that right from television, probably ESPN. The ball hits off the top of the fence, the kid gets thrown out at second. It would have been an inside-the-park home run if he’d have run. This is part of the price we pay.”

Longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley concedes, “We unfortunately have contributed to the woofing.” He remembered being at courtside after a college basketball player broke the backboard on a dunk and proudly crowed, “That’ll be on ‘SportsCenter’ tonight!”

“That turned my stomach,” Ley says. However, he adds, rather pragmatically, “No revolution occurs without some casualties. The video revolution took place. Some bodies were left along the way.”


The Swami and ESP

Originally, ever briefly, it was known as the ESP Network, conjuring images of spoons and brains bending, and apparently leaving many on hand for the inaugural broadcast--Sept. 7, 1979--in a Nostradamus state of mind.

“I have seen the future of TV sports and it makes me giggle,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Stan Isaacs.

Red Smith suggested that this new 24-hour sports network could be “the ghastliest threat to the social fabric of America since the invention of the automobile.”

Lee Leonard, ESPN’s first studio host, introduced the network to a still-blinking first-day audience with bravado, chutzpah and more than a little hyperbole:

“What you will see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you that you’ve gone to sports heaven. . . . Right now, you’re standing on the edge of tomorrow.”

Moments later, Leonard announced what was first up on the menu--a college football preview show, followed by two professional slow-pitch softball World Series games.


Sports heaven hadn’t been occupied five minutes, and already it was feeling closer to purgatory.

This was followed shortly by Leonard joking that softball “is one of those rare sports which everybody knows something about. Why? Because we all play it on Sunday when we drink a little beer.”

George Grande opened the first “SportsCenter” by reporting a 6-1, 6-0 thumping of Billie Jean King by Chris Evert Lloyd, immediately advising King it was time to hang ‘em up. Following the first commercial break, Leonard thanked Anheuser-Busch for being “our singular biggest sponsor as we kick off our ESPN network.”

With that, the essential ESPN playbook that exists to this day was established: Everybody loose on the set.

Mix in a little humor.

Mix in a little attitude.

And, if need be, mix in some commerce with the reportage of the news.

It took a little longer for ESPN to develop a discerning sense of what to put on the air.

“You got a tape, we got the time,” is how Ley describes the early broadcast policy. Besides slow-pitch softball, ESPN featured coverage of darts, badminton, tractor pulls, skeet shooting, go-cart racing, Australian rules football, Irish hurling, even the Frisbee world championships.

ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne, then an underclassman at Nevada Las Vegas, remembers watching this clearinghouse of fringe sports and cult obsessions and thinking that the edge of tomorrow wasn’t far removed from a very steep cliff dive.


“I thought it was a joke,” he says. “There’s no way 24 hours worth of sports is going to make it. . . . There was dwarf-tossing and Gaelic football and whatever else they could find to fill the 24 hours.”

Chris Berman, who along with Ley joined ESPN in 1979, says, “We were on the ropes in the early years. If it was foggy in Hartford, we didn’t have a lot of pictures. Yeah, we could’ve been a parking lot.”

In the spring of 1980, ESPN caught a couple of breaks that would keep the bulldozers at bay: In March, the network landed the early-round games of the NCAA basketball tournament, and in April, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle amazingly agreed to ESPN’s nonsensical proposal to televise the league’s college draft.

As the continued employment of Mel Kiper Jr. and Vitale would suggest, both moves struck a receptive chord among America’s growing cable television audience.

By the time ESPN acquired the rights to actual NFL regular-season games--live, not canned--in 1987, the network had secured its niche as a viable television network. From there, the pace of the course accelerated from survival to global domination. Major league baseball was added in 1990, ESPN Radio in 1992, ESPN2 in 1993, ESPN International in 1994, ESPNEWS in 1996, ESPN Classic in 1997, ESPN the Magazine in 1998.

And today, on the 20th anniversary, two new domestic channels will be launched: ESPN Extra, a full-time pay-per-view channel, and ESPN Now, a “sports barker” channel that will provide a TV Guide-style listing of sports programs provided by cable operators.


Include the ESPN apparel that can be purchased via and the ESPN food that can be sampled at ESPN Zone theme restaurants in Baltimore and Chicago and the ESPN experience has locked up the Big Five: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

As the millennium gets ready to sign off, the letters in the corporate logo have acquired new intent and meaning:

Every Sense Possible eNgaged.

Let’s Rock and Roll

Are you old school?

Talk about your loaded questions.

To tell the truth, the whole and nothing but, is to admit you have enough earth years under your belt to remember what sports television was like before ESPN--and, in all probability, too many to retain membership in the target demographic that attracts most advertisers to ESPN, 18 to 34.

The median age of ESPN the Magazine skews even younger, with ESPN promotional literature proudly touting “the youngest readership of all sports magazines. . . . an advertiser-appealing median age of 29.”

But slide too far to the right of that demographic, into the mid-40s and 50s, and the pertinent question starts to become: How alienated are you?

Mushnick, 47, says that when he discusses ESPN with his peers, “we all say we can’t watch ESPN anymore. It’s not for us. It’s for an 18-year-old kid, probably waking up at 11 in the morning, living in his mother’s basement with a pizza box on the floor and he’s eating the crust from the night before. And he’s wearing a dirty T-shirt that says ‘Motley Crue’ on the front.


“There’s a Beavis and Butt-Head pervasiveness about the show and about the network.”

To that, ESPN has only one word (or is it two)?


That, for the benefit of those lacking sufficient edge, is anchor Stuart Scott’s contribution to the too-cool-for-real-words “SportsCenter” catch-phrase culture--a culture that was brilliantly parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” skit by Tim Meadows as Scott and Ray Romano as eager newcomer Chet Harper.

Meadows/Scott: “The Lakers and the Sonics at the Forum, two of the favorites in ’99. So who’s it gonna be in Y2K? Well, Shaq weighed in with his opinion. [Cut to highlights of Shaquille O’Neal dunking at will.] BOO-YA! BOO-YA! BOO-YA! Shaq Daddy with 37 points. He sends an invitation to finals party and it says, ‘BYOB--Bring Your Own BOO-YA!!!’ ”

Romano/Harper: “Thank you, Stuart. The latest talk is that David Robinson is over the hill. But in my book, you got to get to White Castle before the weirdos show up. . . . Tonight at the Alamodome, he gets happy-go-jacky on the big white guy like a donkey eating a waffle. . . . Get out the checkbook and thank Grandma for the rubdown!”

The funniest part about the bit is that none of it makes sense, and all of it could have been lifted from an actual ‘Sports-Center” broadcast.

“SportsCenter” anchor Dan Patrick (catch-phrase calling card: “Dare I say . . . en fuego?”) notes, “You have great freedom here, but you can hang yourself too. And, um, we’ve had some untimely deaths on occasion. . . .

“Berman created the atmosphere here. Berman and Vitale. But there’s only one of each. So that’s why you have to be careful with this. Because it can be intoxicating. You say, ‘Gosh, tonight I can say whatever I want, anything, and no one can stop me.’ ”


Pause for half a beat.

“They can only hope to contain me.”

Even his replies to questions about the shtick are booby-trapped with shtick.

“Sorry,” Patrick says with a grin. “I had to do that. Sorry.”

According to the legend, athletes who watch “SportsCenter” eat this stuff up. But do they?

Not when the attempts at humor are “at the expense of a . . . personal attack on someone--making fun of a guy’s name, his size, his weight,” Belcher says. “OK. Enough is enough. We’re thick-skinned enough to take it every once in a while, but when you take it every day, it gets old.”

Belcher’s Angel teammate Chuck Finley is less than impressed.

“I think all of them just sit in their cubicle and hype it up and put a spin on it and back out,” Finley says. “I don’t know. To me, they all seem to look like the guy I used to slap the clarinet out of his mouth in high school.”

But it keeps the kids watching. Ed Arnold, a Los Angeles area sportscaster for 31 years until KTLA elected not to extend his contract earlier this summer, says many local news stations have de-emphasized sports on their evening news shows because management assumes “they’ll just switch over to ESPN anyway.”

Arnold, 59, describes the “SportsCenter” gang as “rock ‘n’ roll sportscasters. Everybody has to have kind of a gimmick. Guys like me, I became, I guess you could say, a relic, or whatever, because I still believe very strongly, as I believed when I started my career, that people like to see sports, period.

“But my sons--one’s 36 and the other’s younger--they enjoy ESPN and the cute things that are said and the comments that are made when home runs are hit.”

Fred Roggin of KNBC is one local sportscaster who has weathered the “SportsCenter” assault by using some of the pages of the same playbook. Not that Roggin copied ESPN. Light-hearted bits such as “Roggin’s Heroes” and the “Hall of Shame” have been Roggin staples since the early 1980s, back when “SportsCenter” anchors were still working on their Comedy Shop chops.


“To some degree, I think you have to have an entertaining presentation,” Roggin says. “Now more so than ever before. Because if you don’t have that, then there is truly no reason for anyone to watch you. Because they’ll go to ESPN.”


In McLuhan’s global village, ESPN would be the 24-hour convenience store. Open all night, doughnuts and nachos at the ready, always accessible whenever the 3 a.m. munchies come calling.

But ESPN, gearing up for tonight’s three-hour anniversary special, is hopeful of a somewhat loftier legacy.

Berman: “We have become the national meeting place. Whatever hotel you’re in, you turn on the TV, you see us. We have helped shrink the country in terms of [regional] sports knowledge. Because of us, people are a lot more knowledgeable about teams outside their region.”

Ley: “I think I’m proudest of the fact that the network has become a part of the culture. It’s beyond just a sports network. It’s a cultural touchstone, it’s a reference point. You can’t go into a restaurant or a bar or a hotel lobby. . . . I mean, we’re everywhere.

“And part of that is because we market ourselves very effectively, but most of it is because the marketplace wants it. We talk to people the way they want to be talked to. And they are the smartest audience in the world, which forces us to raise the bar on our product every day.


“If you wrote a cultural history of this country covering the last 20 or 30 years, the last third of the century, we’re going to be part of the reality of what the culture was.”

Language scholars of the next millennium, your work is cut out for you.



Mike Penner takes a look at the best and worst of what “All Sports, All the Time”

has wrought.

Page 6


Chris Berman goes back-back-back virtually to the inception of the network.

Larry Stewart’s column.

Page 7


Times staff writers Mike DiGiovanna and Chris Foster contributed to this story.