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In a Flyover State: Where There Is a Little Upstart Called ESPN

ESPN is the biggest kid on the block in America; across the pond, it is just getting started 12/20/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Here in the colonies, ESPN calls itself the "Worldwide Leader
in Sports." And with its massive sub fees and unrivaled lineup
of sports properties, it's hard to argue.

But the irony is if you hopped a short flight
from Bristol, Connecticut, to Bristol, England,
you would quickly realize that moniker
couldn’t be further from the truth. And over
there, ESPN is the first to admit it.

ESPN is the biggest kid on the block in America;
across the pond, it is just getting started.
Here, ESPN is brash and bold; in the United
Kingdom, it has smartly taken a very different
strategy: the polite and unassuming guest in
someone else’s house. For now, anyway.

ESPN UK launched in August 2009, when
a package of big-time soccer rights suddenly
came up for grabs. Already in the United
Kingdom with networks featuring classic
sports and American sports, ESPN jumped
at the chance to build a mothership in the
sports-crazed country.

So, in TV’s version of a two-minute drill,
ESPN threw together a network in a couple
of months. Even on the day it was set
to launch, the time got moved ahead and
network executives had to scramble to put something up on the screen seven hours earlier
than planned.

Behind the scenes, it still looks like a startup.
Set in suburban London, the headquarters
is bursting at the seams. While there is
soccer paraphernalia everywhere, there are
also people everywhere. If a broom at ESPN
UK has its own closet now, it probably will
be sharing it with a human before too long.

But with anchor properties like English and
Scottish soccer, the pay-TV service is finding
its space. It has put together a roster of wellknown
on-air talent and this year added the
biggest soccer tournament in England, the FA
Cup. It has or is developing British versions
of such U.S. shows as Pardon the Interruption.
Nowadays, ESPN branding sits outside many
pubs, right alongside the long-established
Sky Sports logo.

But the biggest difference for me was the attitude
of the ESPN staffers I met with in London.
There is no sense of entitlement at being
“ESPN.” It is, rather, a combination of roll-up-your-sleeves ambition coupled with a serious
caution about making the network not seem
like the loud Americans coming to take over.
Top managers include a Dutchman and a Brit,
though ESPN smartly installed veteran ESPN
U.S. PR exec Paul Melvin, who knows the
brand but—based on my observation—has
connected very well with the British media.

Of course, like any start-up (albeit a highly
funded one), ESPN UK has faced its challenges.
It has already turned over its top executive
(like many new networks), recently installing
Sony veteran Ross Hair in the top spot. Next
year, it has the rights to much fewer top-tier
English soccer matches. And there are perception
problems, such as the man in a pub
who told me he dismisses it as “the Scottish
network” because it shows so many games
from the lower-regarded league.

But the timing is right for ESPN to expand
into the U.K. Gone are the days when Britain
was solely for the British, as international
brands are everywhere. Fifteen years ago,
when I was working in the press office of a
pro soccer team in London, I would once in a
while answer the general line in a British accent
to make my life easier, as a Yank in British
soccer often wasn’t respected back then.
Those days are long past.

At ESPN UK’s first-ever FA Cup soccer
telecast, the network set up a mobile studio
right on the side of the field at a small stadium,
complete with big ESPN branding. It
was the perfect microcosm for the fledgling
network—trying to strike the balance of introducing
foreign elements without stepping
on toes as the pushy Americans.

After the match, fans of the winning team
rushed the field, and when they realized
ESPN was live from the field-side studio, they
stormed the ESPN set. Now, ESPN UK has to
try to make fans seeking out an ESPN broadcast
on their TV set the norm, if it truly wants
to be a Worldwide Leader everywhere.

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and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman