25 years of ESPN

Posted: Sep 07, 2004 12:00 AM

``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.

     America is a lot richer than it was in 1979, but not that much richer. Something else is afoot, turning so many eyes -- that is what pulls the tide of money -- to sports. Perhaps people are drawn to sports because they really don't mean a thing. In this politicized age, even -- no, especially -- cultural arguments are political arguments. Politics is understood as a series of angry confrontations, and war (on drugs, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is a metaphor for policy. Perhaps, then, sports delight because they are a refuge -- one of society's few meaning-free zones.      

     Or not. Perhaps there is an opposite explanation for the unslakeable appetite for the spectacle of sport, an appetite that has produced ESPN.

     Michael Mandelbaum, author of eight books on international relations, argues in his ninth book, ``The Meaning of Sports,'' that sports are ``a variety of religious experience.'' Like religion, sports stand apart from the mundane and are a realm of special coherence and heroic example.

     The rise of team sports coincided with what Mandelbaum calls the 20th century's ``social and political hurricanes.'' Those were urbanization -- people moving from countryside to town and from job to job -- and world wars, unprecedented confusions and traumas from which people sought diversions. The  20th century, Mandelbaum writes, ``was the era of free verse in poetry, stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, atonal music in place of traditional harmony and melody, and abstract rather than figurative art. James Joyce succeeded Charles Dickens, Jackson Pollock filled the place Rembrandt had occupied.''

     At a time when Robert Frost was comparing free verse to playing tennis without a net, sports became cultural counterpoints because they are transparent and coherent. Transparent because spectators can see for themselves what is happening, and why. Coherent in that they are defined and governed by rationality -- rules -- and reach definitive conclusions. It is surely not mere coincidence that sports and detective novels found mass audiences simultaneously.

     These clues to the mystery of ESPN's remarkable success may assuage any guilt you feel about the time you spend with the boys and girls from Bristol. But don't get carried away. There has been at least one ESPN divorce in which the wife gave to her husband an improvident ultimatum: It's ESPN or me. In at least 10 harmonious marriages the parents have named children ESPN, Espn, Espin or Espyn. How many children have been named HBO or CNN?