NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you want to understand how ESPN went from a two-story building surrounded by satellites in 1979 to the world's largest sports-media brand, spend a day at the company's campus in Bristol, Conn. On the eve of ESPN's 30th anniversary, MediaWorks took a trip up north to the company's Media Workshop, where dozens of sports-media reporters and bloggers convened for a detailed tour of what makes the Walt Disney Co.'s top-grossing cable property tick. Here are some highlights from the day's sessions.
Session 1: ESPN Digital Media (ESPN.com, ESPN360.com, ESPN Mobile)
As one of the first media brands to launch a broadband network, ESPN360, in 2002, and an iPhone app, in 2007, ESPN has never had a problem embracing and even shaping new media. The challenge is producing enough original content to program all the different platforms, a concept the company refers to as "Best Available Screen."
ESPN360 was created on the premise that sports fans are missing out on a good chunk of live sports while they're at work and would gladly pay to keep up with college football, tennis, golf and other sports for a small fee to their internet service providers. Seven years in, 360 programs and 3,500 live events are featured annually, 60% of which are exclusive to the website. "We're looking for things you won't see on TV," said Damon Phillips, VP of ESPN360.com. The site has seen triple-digit viewership growth in the past year, with many viewers watching more than an hour's worth of uninterrupted video online. "Online is still not at TV size, but we're pleased with where it's going," Mr. Phillips told MediaWorks.
And given that nearly all attendees were tweeting live from each panel, it seemed only natural that Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com's VP-executive editor/producer, would volunteer a comment and clarification on the recent headline-grabbing restrictions in ESPN's Twitter policy. "We want to make sure that everyone who's updating a social-media profile is representing the ESPN brand," he said. "If someone tweets, they need to treat this like a live mic and demonstrate appropriate taste and discipline in those places."
Session 2: 30th-Anniversary Technology Session
Oh, Will.i.am, what hath you wrought?
New hologram technology coming to ESPN in the spring, based on Electronic Arts' "Virtual Playbook," will enable anchors to be digitally inserted into shots from remote locations. The idea thrilled Chris Berman and Bob Ley, the two anchors with the longest tenure at the company.
"This is just an example of the cutting-edge technology that will save us so much money on airfare for the World Cup," said Mr. Ley, referencing ESPN's forthcoming coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which will be broadcast from South Africa. Mr. Ley first appeared via green screen from a separate conference room down the hall, only to appear seamlessly on the screen seated between Mr. Berman and Chuck Pagano, ESPN's exec VP-technology.
Mr. Ley looked remarkably more realistic than Will.i.am did during his appearance on CNN last fall, which was precisely the goal. "We looked at that and we said, 'How can we do it better?'" Mr. Pagano said. "How can we extend our internal studio to the outside world?" Although the convenience seems inherent, you can expect many jokes like the one Mr. Berman made in response to Mr. Ley: "You look like Kazoo on 'The Flintstones,' sitting on my shoulder."
Session 3: Executive Lunch
Like many media companies this year, ESPN had to make a few layoffs in May. The layoffs were the first in the company's 30-year history and affected fewer than 100 of its 5,700 global employees. But ESPN President George Bodenheimer and his No. 2, Sean Bratches, exec VP-sales and marketing, said the company has since restored its head count through new positions in departments such as digital media and has developed regionally through new localized networks in Chicago, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. "We're looking to deploy personnel toward growth businesses," Mr. Bratches told MediaWorks.
ESPN is also not sweating the rapid expansion of cable networks for virtually every sports league, from the NFL to the Big 10 to the National Hockey League, Mr. Bodenheimer said. "The leagues, like all businesses, are looking to build their revenues. But we pay them significant fees, so it's such a mutually beneficial relationship that I would be surprised if the leagues did anything to materially upset their business model."
It's no secret that the company's most challenged property is ESPN The Magazine, which recently introduced a pay wall to help make up for declining ad pages, which were down 24.2% in the first half of 2009. "The magazine product is not broken," said John Skipper, ESPN's exec VP-content. "What we have to figure out is a new business model to accommodate 2 million subscribers and an average readership of 10 million people."
Session 4: ESPN Event Production
ESPN built its brand on football, but in the coming months it will be placing a bigger stake in the realms of soccer, Nascar racing and especially tennis, with its first live coverage of the U.S. Open kicking off next week. Longtime tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe joked that he was surprised to hear he would be sharing the anchor desk with his notoriously hot-headed brother John for the first time. "Isn't he getting my coffee?" he quipped. Norby Williamson, ESPN's exec VP-remote/studio production, added, "We had to build a bigger booth to fit both McEnroes."
Session 5: Campus Tour
If you want to know where the bodies are buried at ESPN, talk to Mitch Rymanowski, the Bristol-based VP-tech and engineering. Just make sure you butter him up first. Mr. Rymanowski was one of 30 employees being honored with a star on the campus' "Walk of Fame" for being with the company since its first year of operations and has seen the Bristol headquarters expand from half a building to 13 and counting.
As Mr. Rymanowski gave reporters a guided tour through the main studio where "SportsCenter" originated and is still based on the East Coast, he made reference to several photos of the studio's many incarnations through the decades. "In one of these photos you will see the worst employee ever to work for ESPN," he said. "I won't tell you who that person is, but they made my life a living hell while they were here." Mr. Rymanowski also apologized for not being able to share any stories from his earliest days with ESPN during the formative years of cable TV. "When we started out, we had no rules. We could do whatever we wanted," he said. "We had some great times, none of which I can repeat for you today."
Session 6: Writers Break/Interview Period
It was at this point that MediaWorks took a break to catch up on e-mails. We were just sending out a tweet (unrestricted, thanks) when Bill Rasmussen, ESPN's founder, entered the campus, wearing a rather ironic "Visitor" badge he had just received from security.
"Shouldn't he be wearing a badge that says 'I made you?'" we remarked to an ESPN publicist. It turns out Mr. Rasmussen hasn't been with the company in decades, so he's used to being a stranger on the campus he helped build. He recently moved to Seattle to start a social-networking site, the unfortunately named College Fanz Sports Network. But he still makes periodic visits to Bristol and was happy to wax nostalgic about the early days of ESPN and cable TV.
For instance, when Budweiser became ESPN's first advertiser in 1979, it signed a contract for what was a then-record multi-event ad deal for cable, valued at $380,000, an amount that today would be worth roughly the equivalent of a single ad on "Monday Night Football." And despite early investment from the NCAA, Mr. Rasmussen was often at a loss as to how to program a 24-hour sports network when many of the biggest sports were tied up in long-term contracts with the broadcast networks; ESPN's first televised game was from the slow-pitch softball World Series.
It was then that the concept "the game behind the game" was generated, which led to "SportsCenter." "We said, 'Let's do a half-hour sports show, put it on at 6:30 opposite the evening news and see who tunes in,'" Mr. Rasmussen said.
The rest, of course, is history. ESPN eventually signed enough new and exclusive contracts to program dozens of domestic media properties including cable networks, websites, radio stations, mobile apps and a magazine. A true cable executive, Mr. Rasmusssen was alternately proud of the legacy he helped carve out for ESPN and the cable industry and worried for his old competitors' prospects. "I wonder, what's it like for a broadcast network these days?" he asked MediaWorks.
Depending on whom you ask, the future's not as rosy for the Big Three as it used to look from the Bristol campus.