Sunday, August 13, 2006

The new look for ABC Sports – makes perfect "business" sense

Wednesday, Disney announced their third quarter earnings. If anyone wanted to know how important ESPN is to Mickey and Company they needed to look no further then ESPN accounting for roughly half of Disney's $2 billion in operating income.

In other words, the company's other main businesses combined - the ABC broadcast network, its many parks and resorts, its movie studio and consumer products division - equal about the size of ESPN, when measured by operating income.

Disney announced that it had generated $2 billion in operating income on $8.6 billion in revenue in the third quarter. Its cable network division, the bulk of which is ESPN, generated $969 million in operating income - representing 15 percent growth over the year-ago period - and $2.2 billion of revenue.

In simplistic terms – the economic engine that drives one of the world’s largest media companies are the sports based ESPN networks and it’s related programming.

In what should not have surprised anyone, Thursday, Disney announced that ESPN will become the overarching brand for all sports programming carried on the ABC Television Network beginning Saturday, Sept. 2 – the debut of ABC’s college football season.

“It makes perfect sense for The Walt Disney Company to bring the strongest brand in sports media, ESPN, to our company’s most expansive platform – the ABC Television Network,” said George Bodenheimer, President, ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks. “Our collection of multimedia sports assets is unmatched in the industry and we will now extend the ESPN brand across all platforms.”

Too many in the industry it must have seemed like the darkest of days, ESPN an upstart cable network barely more then 25-years old showing ABC Sports the door.

"It's going to be interesting news outside of the sports media industry," said sports television consultant Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who runs his own consultancy firm and often works with ESPN in an SI.com report. "It reflects the continued expansion of influence of ESPN. This is a company that not only has four 24/7 cable channels, plus it's online, Internet, mobile phone, you name it, they now will basically contract for and control some 400 hours of network broadcast time. This isn't to say they don't already do it. But now they are going to have this additional brand platform."

If the change in how ABC Sports presents itself caught anyone by surprise they only have themselves to blame for not reading the tea leaves.

Bodenheimer added: “This evolutionary step reflects the extraordinary relationship ESPN has with today’s sports fans and the dynamic changes in how sports are consumed. ESPN has been infused with ABC Sports’ history of innovation, and we are committed to building upon that legacy as we continue to serve fans and our partners more effectively through ESPN on ABC.”

Well respected New York Times sports business columnist Richard Sandomir invoked the names and images of the greats of ABC Sports past -- Roone Arledge, Jim McKay, “Wide World of Sports,” Howard Cosell, 10 Olympics and Mexican cliff diving. The key, these names are all in the past and while they should be cherished and remembered for what they contributed to the sports industry and to ABC, they’re from a bygone era in sports television.

“My heart just weeps for Roone’s legacy,” said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, whose career started as an Olympic researcher at ABC Sports before becoming Arledge’s executive assistant in Sandomir’s New York Times report.

Sandomir did speak with one of sports broadcasting true living legends the now retired and longtime voice of ABC’s college coverage (and the first voice of Monday Night Football) Keith Jackson for his reaction to the news.

“It was inevitable.” He retired earlier this year (for the second time) after spurning ESPN’s offer to stay. “When ABC was sold to Capital Cities, and then to Disney, the handwriting was on the wall.”

He added: “A lot of people worked to make ABC what it was, and they deserve more than to have their legacy callously tossed aside.”

Frank Gifford, an ABC star for 27 years, mostly on “Monday Night Football”, and the broadcaster who replaced Jackson after MNF’s inaugural season offered this to Sandomir, ““The tail took over the dog,” he said, with a bit of a laugh. “The tail outgrew the dog. The world has changed.”

There are those who will suggest the beginning of the end for ABC Sports was when the ABC so closely associated with the Olympic Games lost their “Olympic brand” after failing to acquire the rights to the 1988, 1992 and finally the 1996 Games. ABC lost what many believed was their sports brand signature to NBC. Ebersol took what he had learnt at the feet of Arledge in building NBC’s sports programming around the Olympic Games convincing NBC the Olympic Games where in the peacock network’s destiny.

It’s much more important in understanding ABC’s thought process to recognize how gigantic a sports machine ESPN has evolved into.

Born in 1979, the ESPN brand is now home to seven different networks, has its own growing entertainment division that creates original movies and daily programming, the number one sports radio network and the number one sports website. ESPN is the new home of Monday Night Football (the single biggest property in sports television), Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, thousands of college football and basketball games, the World Cup and an host of other events.

Melding together the “ESPN look” on ABC will only further serve to drive viewers to ESPN.

The daunting task sports properties face that aren’t a part of what ESPN televises (the National Hockey League is one example) the nearly impossible task of creating any awareness among America’s sports fans if you’re not a part of ESPN’s programming. ESPN doesn’t have a monopoly on sports coverage, but they’re certainly heading in that direction.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: the New York Times.