``If we had ESPN 22 years ago, we wouldn't have any children.''
-- a college coach, 1990
WASHINGTON -- You are in a ballpark with your 12-year-old. The shortstop makes a sparkling play and your child murmurs, ``Web gem.'' As a slugger approaches the plate your child says, with a hint of drollery, ``You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him.'' When the slugger hits one 400 feet, the child says, ``That'll make the Top Ten Plays.''
Congratulations: Your child is bilingual. He or she speaks SportsCenterese, the lingua franca of ESPN nation, the capital of which is Bristol, Conn., where 27 satellite dishes scarf up 40,000 feeds a year, the best of which are sent around the clock to sports addicts, such as the viewer who, in 1987, said: ``Please show the Nebraska-UCLA game at 6:00 as I have a 5:00 Mass and would have to find a priest to replace me if you show it earlier.''
ESPN will be a quarter-century old on Sept. 7. Measurements of ``brand resonance'' show that among 138 brands, including Coca-Cola and McDonalds, ESPN ranks first among men. Each week more than 90 million people are exposed to ESPN media -- ESPN (there are locally produced SportsCenters in Canada, Brazil, a Spanish version for the rest of Latin America, China, India and Taiwan), ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN.com (2.3 million page views in a peak hour), and ESPN The Magazine (a circulation of 1.7 million in just five years).
This stunning growth reflects ways America has changed in a quarter of a century. The change can be measured in money.
In 1979, when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network began, the average major league baseball salary was $113,558 and pitcher Nolan Ryan became the first million-dollar-a-year athlete in team sports. Today the average baseball salary ($2.55 million) has increased 2,241 percent and there are 1,702 million-dollar athletes. In 1979 broadcasters paid the National Football League $8.8 million annually; today the fee is approximately $2.25 billion, an increase of more than 25,400 percent.