In today’s society, much of what we watch on cable television consists of niche networks. These are networks that broadcast mostly or completely about a specific topic. A prime example of this, as given by Sarah Banet-Weiser, is Nickelodeon being a children’s network. Similarly, MTV relates primarily to music culture, and Lifetime thrives on showing movies made for women. One of the largest niche networks in the world is ESPN, owned by top-five media producing giant, Disney. ESPN is the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, showing live sports, sports highlights, talk shows about sports, and commercials that relate to sports. They stand as the largest sports niche network, and are a recognizable network around the world. But how did they become so popular? Like many networks, they work to create an experience, not just a product. They make themselves a brand.
When Banet-Weiser interviewed a child about what it means to be a “Nick Kid,” in reference to Nickelodeon, she was able to conclude that the experience of a shared community and common values meant a lot to the viewers. This community and set of values is created by the branding of the network, and the same is true for ESPN. Banet-Weiser discusses that the relationship between Nickelodeon and the America’s youth being based on brand bonding. She explains that differences between authentic experiences and experiences that are sold to us through corporate branding are no longer distinct, but one in the same. In layman’s terms, we perceive experiences that are sold to us as genuine experiences, proving that these niche networks’ branding strategies are working incredibly well in their favor, whether it be Nickelodeon with kids or ESPN with young adult males.
ESPN’s branding strategy is incredibly clear: Target affluent young adult males. According to their own website, their viewers are 94% male, the median age is 29 years old, and 74% are employed full time. Most of the live sports shown on ESPN consist of male teams, along with most of the announcers being male. Further than just the live sports, all of their daily talk show hosts are male. Even most of the ‘news’ anchors for Sportscenter are men, and the ones that are women don’t seem to have gotten their position due to their extensive sports knowledge, but more likely due to their ability to fit the male gaze. One reason for this could be because men don’t trust female opinions when it comes to sports, as men are taught from a young age that sports are to be correctly understood and dominated by males. Another potential reason could be that in male media, women are generally used for their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, or as objects of sexual desire, hence why those few female news anchors are particularly well endowed by the standards of hegemonic femininity. Whatever the reason may be, ESPN takes advantage of the male dominated world of sports for their own brand, and they employ and present primarily males in the broadcasting.
Above all else, ESPN has one major advantage when it comes to branding, and that’s the requirement of an interest in sports in the performance of hegemonic masculinity. Males and females alike are both taught from a very young age that there are certain standards for the gender. Whether it be explicit or subtle, nearly every single person in today’s world is interpellated into performing pre set ideas of what each person should do, and many of these ideologies relate to what are considered gender norms. ESPN not only capitalizes on hegemonic masculinity, but also contributes to it. The common ideology that men and sports are made for one another lures viewers in to ESPN at a young age. From there, ESPN plays a major role in contributing further to the idea that sports are for men by showing almost only male sports, male broadcasters, and commercials that make products look manly (Nike, Budweiser, Dos Equis). ESPN also plays into the ideology brought up by Michael Messner, showing the male consumer as a loser. One major way they accomplish this is through their dominantly male broadcasting staff. These men, who are typically nonathletic (especially compared to the professional athletes showcased all day long on the network) prove to young men who are being interpellated that even if you cannot play sports, you can still be a man just by talking about them. When a guy like Brian Windhorst can get plenty of air time as an NBA reporter, he conveys the message that even if you aren’t athletic enough to participate in sports, a young man can still practice hegemonic masculinity by still following sports and talking about them. In short, ESPN is not only taking advantage of hegemonic masculinity, but also contributing to it on a daily basis.
In summary, ESPN got to be the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” by branding themselves. They made themselves not a product, but an experience. They were able to do it by targeting the affluent young male by utilizing things that they are taught to like. They take full advantage of the ideology that states sports are an essential part to practicing hegemonic masculinity, something that it required to be a part of a community with common values. It’s easy to become a successful network when much of the work has already been done for you and all that is required is making yourself a brand that sells the experience of fitting in as a man.
Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience.”, pp. 69-103.
ESPN.com, Disney. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.
Messner, Michael. “The Male Consumer as Loser: Beer and Liquor Ads in Mega Sports Media Events.”.