ESPN is a superstar of the sports broadcasting world. The company is the leading cable sports broadcaster, reaching about 100 million US viewers per month with its stable of channels, including ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Classic. The 24-hour networks carry a variety of live sporting events, as well as programs devoted to news and analysis. ESPN also creates original programming for TV and radio, and lends content for ESPN.com, one of the most popular sports sites on the Internet. Its international operations extend the ESPN brand to another 200 countries. ESPN is 80% owned by Walt Disney (through ABC); media conglomerate Hearst has a 20% stake.
The network has become more than just a leading sports outlet on TV: ESPN's popularity is so vast it is a force to be reckoned with in popular culture, spurring catch phrases and launching athletes into celebrity status. Through ESPN Original Entertainment and ESPN Films, the broadcaster has pushed into original programming with talk shows (Pardon the Interruption), series television, and documentary specials. The network's cultural influence also shows up in events it produces such as its ESPYs awards show, the X Games, and the Winter X Games. ESPN even has its hands in video games, apparel, two ESPN Zones restaurants, and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, among other things.
To reach that stage, ESPN has worked tirelessly to extend its power and influence throughout sports and entertainment. It holds broadcasting contracts with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League, as well as NASCAR and college sports conferences. In 2008 the cable sports channel inked a 15-year deal with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) worth more than $2 billion to air football and basketball games. It later outbid FOX to air the college football Bowl Championship Series, paying $125 million a year for four years to air the top games.
The always-popular Monday Night Football celebrated its 40th year in 2009. ESPN took over Monday Night Football from sister company ABC in 2006. ABC lost about $150 million a year on the venerable program, and the network decided it would fare better on cable. ESPN agreed to pay the NFL $1.1 billion a year for eight years for the broadcasting rights. ABC also turned over its sports programming arm (ABC Sports) to ESPN, which now airs games on ABC under the ESPN banner.
In addition to big-ticket sports, ESPN has been increasing its coverage of other sports leagues, including Major League Lacrosse and Major League Soccer. The company has also been expanding its influence into the international sports scene. In 2009 it acquired rights to air UK Premier League football matches. The rights to the games had been held by troubled Irish broadcaster Setanta Sports Holdings. ESPN plans to launch a new cable and satellite channel to carry the games, integrating content from ESPN America (formerly the North American Sports Network). ESPN Deportes already broadcasts many European soccer games.
In efforts to boost the network's use of technology, in early 2010 ESPN acquired Vistas Unlimited. The business supplies virtual insertion technology that places advertisements or graphic enhancements into live sports coverage. Vistas Unlimited was behind the AimPoint technology used by The Golf Channel to analyze putting on PGA and LPGA broadcasts. (AimPoint paints a virtual line on the green showing the ideal path a ball should follow on its way to the cup, and then compares that with the actual path the ball takes.) ESPN has expanded and improved its wireless delivery of content such as scores, headlines, and highlights through its ESPN Mobile TV platform. It also launched broadband service ESPN3.com in April 2010 and its ESPN3D service in June 2010.
The network was started in 1979 under the name Entertainment and Sports Programming Network; it adopted the new name -- ESPN -- in 1985.