Beginning with its 1979 cable-television launch, ESPN, Inc. (then officially known as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), strove to build a brand that was synonymous with sports. After progressively acquiring broadcasting rights to college basketball and football and then, one after another, to each of the major professional sports leagues, ESPN became the dominant sports network on television as well as a cable-industry model for success. Indeed, the proliferation of specifically targeted cable channels in the 1990s and 2000s owed a great deal to ESPN’s example of successfully targeting sports-obsessed men. At the same time, the wide selection of channels that became available to most consumers made it ever more imperative that networks offer a clear brand image. In late 2002 ESPN unveiled its first overall branding campaign, ‘‘Without Sports.’’ Created by the New York office of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), the ‘‘Without Sports’’ television spots ran during ESPN’s own programming. The campaign attempted to reinforce the network’s brand image as the sports-fan’s lifeblood while simultaneously transcending the core audience of 18- to 34-year-old men to make the point that nearly everyone was, at bottom, a sports fan. Offering honest and at times humorous depictions of the intense ways in which sports and everyday life were inextricably linked, each commercial asked viewers to consider a particular element of human life that would be lost if sports did not exist. In the campaign’s first season, for instance, a spot called ‘‘Coach’’ showed a wide cross-section of sports fans who, in the throes of complete emotional involvement with televised games, continually offered advice to the players. The commercial ended with the onscreen type, ‘‘Without sports, there’d be no one to coach.’’ A spot in the campaign’s second season showed a father and son playing basketball and postulated, ‘‘Without sports, how would we close the gap?’’ ‘‘Without Sports’’ won a Gold Lion at the 2003 International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, and ESPN research indicated that the campaign helped increase ratings as well as brand recognition in its first several years on the air. ESPN remained the premier cable network in the eyes of cable operators, viewers, and marketers during the campaign’s multiyear run.
Started by entrepreneur Bill Rasmussen with funding from Getty Oil, ESPN made its television debut on September 7, 1979, at a time when fewer than 14 percent of American households had cable and the big-three broadcast networks could count on 90 percent of the country’s television audience. Cable as a medium did not yet have a clear identity, and existing cable networks, such as HBO and WTBS, offered programming aimed at general audiences. More than just the first all-sports network, ESPN was the first network to target a specific segment of the American viewing public: namely, sports fans, the overwhelming majority of whom were men. In its early years ESPN filled its programming schedule with a range of non-mainstream sports broadcasts, ranging from college baseball to tractor pulls to Australian Rules Football, and was further defined, in the public imagination, by the groundbreaking sportsnews and highlights show SportsCenter, which ran nightly for one hour. The network was also instrumental in the popularization of college basketball; throughout the early 1980s ESPN attracted its largest audiences during its annual coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and initiated the tournament-time phenomenon that came to be known as ‘‘March Madness.’’ ESPN increased its profile further by acquiring broadcasting rights to college football games in 1984, but the network’s watershed moment came with its first NFL football programming deal, in 1987; its subsequent Sunday Night Football broadcasts routinely topped the cable ratings. After cementing additional deals with...