ESPN Launches Classic in U.K.

Net Aims to Lure Viewers With Focus on Landmark Rugby, Soccer Matches

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When ESPN Classic launches in the U.K. on March 13, don't go looking for Game Seven of the Yankees/Dodgers World Series.

That's because the company's first network there, airing on Britain's BSkyB platform, will televise only past English sporting events or those germane to the country.

The introduction represents a bet by Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN International's Exec VP-Managing Director Russell Wolff that Brits are as much a fan of old sporting events as their counterparts in the U.S. While the sports are different, the premise is much the same as it is in the U.S., where ESPN Classic airs games, interviews, movies, profiles and documentaries from the past and bridges the action to today with fresh interviews, analysis and commentary from broadcasters and athletes.

"This is not ESPN Classic from the U.S. at all," said Mr. Wolff, exec VP-managing director for ESPN International. "These are dedicated, focused channels."

The channel will air such programming as England's historic 2003 victory over Australia for the Rugby World Cup, great soccer matches from the past, profiles of England's greatest athletes and more. ESPN did much the same when it launched a Classic network in France and Italy in 2002, showing such relevant content as the 1998 French World Cup win in France, or Italian skier Alberto Tomba's Olympic gold medal runs in Italy.

"We've looked at various spots in Europe and felt this was an underserved market in sports entertainment," Mr. Wolff said.

Yet ESPN is such an iconic brand that some English fans are confused, believing that the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" will morph into showing American sports like baseball and football. The network says it has no plans to do so.

In fact, ESPN has launched an ad campaign in England to make sure the Brits understand they'll be seeing strictly the hometown heroes on ESPN Classic in the U.K. The print, TV and outdoor campaign is being handled by London-based Heavenly. The tagline: "Dead Good Sports."

Mr. Wolff declined to name specific advertisers and sponsors, but said that "ad sales are going on. We'll have a good mix of pan-regional advertisers and U.K.-specific sponsors and partners."

Man on the (British) street

Let's just say ESPN started screening American sports, how would the Brits like that? Ad Age's Alexandra Jardine takes a straw poll of sports fans in London.

"I would definitely watch a new sports channel. There can never be enough sport on TV -- it offsets all the crappy reality shows. I wouldn't watch American sports as much as traditional sports, but as a sports fan, watching any sports is better than none."

-- Stuart, 32, doctor

"I have just been to Zimbabwe for a couple of weeks and they had the ESPN channel there. I must confess I didn't find anything worth watching on it. There can never be too much sport on TV, but most things Americans call sport should really be called something else. ... But maybe I'm a bit biased. If it covers sports like golf and tennis it might be worth watching."

-- Neil, 33, veterinarian

"I haven't heard of ESPN. But there's too much sport on TV already -- loads of Sky channels and Eurosport as well. I don't like that they make you pay to watch it. The only new thing I'd be interested in watching is more 'extreme' sports, like wakeboarding."

-- John, 50, builder

"ESPN would work on the basis of the growth in sports watching and betting, and it would give even more people access to watching sport."

-- Duncan, 34, investment banker

"There's plenty of sport on the box already, and some of the sports channels have some really weird and wonderful stuff, so I can't see any need. I have no interest in American sports to either play or attend, so I wouldn't spend valuable time trying to fathom out the strange rules they have."

-- Nick, 40, public-relations specialist

"I find the thought of a sport channel devoted to American sports depressing in the extreme. I'm a big fan of sport on the TV, but have no affinity with baseball, American football, etc., and feel that this would be more of the American insistence that they know best and need to inflict their culture and values on everybody else."

-- Tristan, 33, doctor

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