State of the Networks II: ESPN, Part I

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The addition of the Bowl Championship Series and the ongoing success of Monday Night Football have cemented ESPN as the home of the highest rated sporting events on cable.

Though its cable competitors may have several marquee sporting events of their own, ESPN has the rights to the cream of the crop — the aforementioned BCS and Monday Night Football. In the four years since ESPN acquired the rights to MNF, previously a broadcast television staple, the network has averaged at least a 7.0 rating and eleven million viewers each year, numbers that are generally unheard of for anything on cable, much less sports.

Last year, the network had its best season of Monday Night Football, averaging a 9.0 and 14.382 million viewers. The season included the two most-viewed television programs in cable history, with an October Packers/Vikings game topping the charts with a 13.2 and 21.839 million viewers. Packers/Vikings marked the third time that MNF had drawn the largest audience in cable TV history; overall, seven of the ten most-viewed programs in cable history are Monday Night Football games.

ESPN is no doubt hoping to replicate that success with the Bowl Championship Series, arguably the highest-profile event the network has ever aired. ESPN will air the entire BCS from 2011 to 2014, including the BCS National Championship Game — marking the first time the champion of college football has been crowned on cable.

The magnitude of the BCS deal cannot be understated. The BCS National Championship Game is routinely the highest rated, most-viewed sporting event of a given year, excluding the NFL and the Olympic Games. The last time it did not hold that distinction was 2005, when the USC/Oklahoma Orange Bowl drew a championship game record low 13.7 and 21.419 million viewers.

To have an event with that kind of drawing power air on ESPN further legitimizes the network as a viable option for the highest-profile events. If ESPN is good enough for the BCS, then why not slightly lesser lights such as the World Series or NBA Finals?

Of course, the move to ESPN will likely be accompanied by near-record low ratings for all of the BCS bowls. The highest rated, most-viewed program in cable history (the aforementioned Packers/Vikings game from last October) still drew lower numbers than the lowest rated, least-viewed BCS National Championship Game in history (the aforementioned USC/Oklahoma game in 2005). Still, even if a rating in the 14.0 range would be unusually low for the BCS title game, it would be cause for celebration in Bristol, where such numbers were once unimaginable.

With the massive numbers for Monday Night Football and the sure-to-be-strong numbers for the BCS, it would make sense to say that ESPN has the strongest lineup of big-time sporting events on cable — perhaps even challenging the broadcast networks.

However, ESPN still lacks several top events. The network is completely shut out of the NFL Playoffs, MLB Postseason and NCAA Tournament, three crown jewels. Additionally, even though ESPN is in nearly 100 million homes, its largest audiences still pale in comparison to those of the broadcast networks. In the past year, each of the Big Four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX) have had at least one non-NFL sporting event draw more viewers than the record Packers/Vikings game from last year.

Though ESPN finds itself on the sidelines for the some of the bigger postseason tournaments, that’s through no lack of trying. ESPN nearly acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament on two occasions during the past year. First, CBS offered to pay ESPN to take on the last three years of its NCAA Tournament deal. Then, when the NCAA opted out of its deal with CBS, ESPN was one of the bidders the acquire the rights. In the end, it was outbid by CBS and Turner Sports.

Meanwhile, ESPN/ABC plans to bid for the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games, an event that would no doubt surpass Monday Night Football as ESPN’s most prized possession.

Even if that bid is unsuccessful, ESPN still has an assortment of sports programming that is unparalleled. Three of the four major team sports (unmatched by any broadcast network), three of the four golf majors (including the entire British Open), all four tennis majors (including the entire Australian Open), several college championships and countless regular season college football and basketball games, just to name a few. That is the advantage of being a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports programming, and it makes ESPN a must-watch for fans of just about every sport imaginable.

Overall, ESPN boasts one of the strongest lineups in sports, even without the rights to several major events. Unlike its competitors, however, the state of ESPN cannot only be judged by the events it airs or the ratings it gets. Because ESPN is also a news organization, and because that aspect of ESPN is arguably as prominent as its sports programming, the journalistic side of ESPN will also be examined.

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