At the Center of Sports

ESPN counts down to its 25th anniversary

It probably doesn't take much to get the average ESPN fan to toast anything, but, on Sept. 7, fans of all the sports networks can give the network a high five on its 25th anniversary. The celebration began months ago.

Starting in late May, Disney-owned ESPN specials have counted down the most memorable moments in sports from 1979 to 2004, with more than 30 hours of programming throughout the summer. Top ESPN anchors Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Dan Patrick and Stuart Scott, all long-timers at ESPN, have been hosting the special programming.

The lineup includes Who's #1, a 13-episode series of top-25 lists. It comprises the top games and best sports movies, as well as quirky lists like the biggest chokes and worst teams. The countdown to top coach includes former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight at No. 11 and former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson at No. 4. On the list of biggest flops are disappointing NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, the XFL, and former NFL guard Tony Mandarich, who never achieved what the sports world had predicted.

"This is a time to look back and reflect at the fabric of sports in our culture," says Senior Vice President of Original Programming Ron Semiao. Indeed, ESPN hometown Bristol, Conn., is to sports TV what Canton, Ohio, is to the National Football League.

A 13-episode strand in its celebration is The Headlines, recounting the 25 biggest sports stories over the past quarter century. That, too, will conclude Sept. 7, with the biggest story of the past 25 years.

Basketball analyst Dick Vitale, gets typically emotional talking about ESPN, where he has been since the start. Back then, Vitale worked out of a little trailer in Bristol. Today, ESPN's Bristol campus has 27 satellite dishes, nine control rooms and 31 editing suites. With its new digital center, ESPN now occupies 64 acres, containing 600,000 square feet. Its SportsCenter
changed the style of sports-news reporting.

Vitale's amazed by what has happened. "There's EPSN2, ESPN the Magazine,, ESPN the store," he says. "I'm proud to be this little spoke in the big wheel that ESPN has become."

Vitale also remembers that ABC Sports and ESPN chief George Bodenheimer began in the mailroom. He used to double as Vitale's driver.

"I'd say, 'George, you are going to make it,'" Vitale recalls.

When Bodenheimer was named head of ESPN, Vitale says he called and pleaded, "You used to be my driver, man! When it comes time to retire, please don't give me a wristwatch. Give me cash!"

Bodenheimer's rise mirrors ESPN's. In a quarter century, it has grown into a cable powerhouse. It is one of cable's biggest networks, reaching more than 85 million subscribers and routinely ranking as a top-10 cable network. In the fall, ESPN's Sunday Night Football
games are usually the top-rated cable programs. Cable operators often rail against it because it charges over $2 per subscriber, but no cable system really wants to be without it. When Disney bought ABC in the early '90s, it was as much (if not more) for ESPN as for the Alphabet network. In 2003, the combined revenues of ESPN networks totaled about $3.7 billion, with profits of about $1.4 billion.

Not content to rest on its laurels, on Sept. 5, ESPN will look ahead to what the next 25 years have in store. The next night, it will offer a retrospective on ESPN's history. And that history is extensive.

The channel added the National Basketball Association to its schedule in 2002 and airs all four major sports leagues: besides the NBA, the National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball. There's also soccer, boxing, college football, in addition to more-random events. Spinoff network ESPN2 is piped into more than 80 million homes, and ESPNews and ESPN Classic reach about 40 million each.

For Vitale, ESPN is a gamble that paid off. In 1979, he was coaching in the NBA but got fired on Nov. 8. ESPN then asked if he would call their college basketball games. At his wife's urging, he agreed and called a DePaul-Wisconsin game for the network. He was hooked.

"I went there and had so much fun," he says. "It's been like that for 25 years."