Branding the Worldwide Leader: ESPN

Few nicknames are as appropriate and ubiquitous as ESPN’s moniker, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”. A large reason for the success of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is its longevity, which has allowed them to sculpt their brand slowly but surely over the course of the last thirty-seven years. What was once the only place to watch sports highlights from around the country is now a hub for millennials to consume sports gossip and participate in heated debates over their favorite athletes. This transformation serves as a representation of the increased importance of brand development in our culture and how it can influence decisions made by the media. ESPNs ability to establish a lasting brand, coupled with the power of branding in general, has led to the network’s status of being alone atthe top of the sports media pyramid.

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The marketing strategy of television networks has shifted since the early days of television. In general, companies trying to sell anything have moved from highlighting their products utility to establishing a brand for themselves that consumers can hopefully identify with. According to author Sarah Benet-Weiser, “the language of the brand is maintained by personal narratives – lifestyle, identity, empowerment – more than a more historical language of advertising, which relied heavily on a product’s efficiency in a competitive market” (Benet-Weiser, 2007). ESPN’s original product, a 24-hour sports network, was rather cut and dry when it first aired in 1979; they offered sports highlights to those without access to sports highlights and fulfilled an objective need. Since then the television landscape has changed dramatically, and the “worldwide leader” has done a great job staying ahead of the curve by establishing itself as the sports fans TV channel.

Rather than investing huge amounts of time and resources into determining what their audience wanted subconsciously, ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen kept it simple and said “Let’s do a half-hour sports show, put it on at 6:30 opposite the evening news and see who tunes in” (Hampp, 2009). That strategy no longer flies in the branding generation, where “the brand matters more than the product, and corporations sell an experience or a lifestyle more than a thing” (Benet-Weiser, 2007). ESPN is in the business of commodifying sports fanaticism. It’s goal is to create the feeling that one can only be considered a true fan if they both watch ESPN and consume its content across all platforms. The network has tapped into the desires of the oft-referenced Millennial generation by embracing social media and stoking the fire behind countless sports debates both on the internet and on television.

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In order to reach their target demographic of 18-35 year old men, ESPN has kept its finger on the pulse of how these men want to be represented. The network attracts two types of people: those who are obsessed with sports and those who are not but want to remain knowledgeable on the topic. A healthy knowledge of sports and sports culture is an essential element of our society’s hegemonic masculinity. In order to provide American men with said knowledge, ESPN has expanded its brand over the past two decades in the form of eight sister networks and a massive internet/social media presence (@SportsCenter and @ESPN have over 60 million followers combined). This strategy of relentless accessibility has successfully positioned the network as the most prominent sports media source in the minds of Americans, and it is really not even close. It also lends itself well to exponential, almost paradoxical growth. People notice that ESPN has so many channels and followers. They then tune in, assuming that it must be the best place to get sports news, and ultimately end up adding to the network’s massive following and attracting even more consumers.

As stated previously, social media has become a huge part of ESPN’s branding strategy over the past decade. The network not only creates its own content but also focuses on content produced by athletes and teams throughout the world. It is a relentless effort that includes everything from tweeting sports highlights and breaking news to allowing on-air pundits to debate over seemingly pointless topics, knowing all along that the debate will inevitably spill over into ESPN comment sections across the internet. The “Worldwide Leader” has given men on the web a place to fight over who has more random sports knowledge, which is their subconscious way of proving who is more masculine. This type of environment is very attractive to the sports fanatic that considers their fandom to be part of their identity, and those are the exact people that ESPN is trying to attract.

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Screencap from”First Take”, a show based on the tagline “Embrace Debate”

ESPN has effectively used its long tenure atop the sports media mountain to cement its position as the industry alpha dog. The network has established a brand that is synonymous with sports fandom, and it has proven strong enough to withstand countless attempts at imitation. A large reason for this stability has been ESPN’s willingness to pivot on its offerings in order to meet the desires of its demographic, from strictly sports highlights to debates over an athlete’s use of a certain emoji. Either way, fans from all corners of the globe understand why ESPN is “the Worldwide Leader in Sports”.

References

Banet-Weiser, S. (2007). The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience    Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Duke University Press.

Hampp, A. (2009). How ESPN Became the World’s Biggest Sports-Media Brand. Advertising Age. Retrieved from http://adage.com/article/media/espn-world-s-biggest-sports- media-brand/138711/

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