A new distribution mechanism, a customer-friendly idea, and a high-flying startup eager to get to market. This could be a story of contemporary Silicon Valley. Instead, this story takes place in the oft-maligned town of Bristol, Connecticut.
Bristol is almost a character in the story. Early employees talk about what a dump it was, and how hard that made it to attract talent there. It turned out (accidentally) to be a good place to put a satellite uplink. At the time that ESPN launched, it was cheaper to broadcast via satellite to the whole country than over land lines to other parts of Connecticut. In the 1990’s the network came up with a clever way to increase its subscriber fees: it signed contracts with cable providers to increase its fee by 20 percent per year, compounding for annually. This resulted in an increase from $0.40 to $1.60 in only seven years.
Luck played a large role in ESPN’s early days. Its founders heard “no” many times before Getty Oil got involved, looking to diversify its investments. The story of Stuart Evey wresting control of the network away from the Rasmussen family has echoes of The Founder.
By distributing its content over cable and satellite, ESPN monetized through subscriber fees. This meant that they wanted dedicated fans, not just high ratings–true fans who would complain if their local cable provider did not offer the channel. This in turn pushed ESPN toward diverse programming such as Australian rules football: it was cheap to produce and its fans were vocal. ESPN thus played a role in the diversification of American sports. For example, it changed NASCAR from a Southern pasttime to a national sport.
When these contests were difficult for casual viewers to understand, the network fell back on telling stories of the personalities involved. For example, the America’s Cup was not a mainstream viewing event so the network cast it as a contest between “white hats” and “black hats”. This contributed to the celebritization of athletes. Later the network would similarly celebritize its announcers.
One notable event in the history of ESPN was its acquisition by Disney. At first, higher-ups did not coordinated between ABC Sports and ESPN. This meant that the two organizations competed over things like bids for football games. The first time the two groups cooperated was the 1998 World Cup in France, since union rules did not apply overseas.
A recurring theme in interviews is how concerned network executives were to avoid “precedent setting.” By the end of the book, one has the distinct impression that at times it would have been beneficial for them to relax this a bit for certain one-off scenarios.
Two other themes of the book are the role of technology and occasional controversies that befell the network. Examples of the former include the unsuccessful ESPN phone, the popularity of ESPN.com, and the rise of Bill Simmons. The latter includes cases of sexual harassment, racist comments (including several ill-advised, on-air Hitler references), and conflict between employees. This is an account of a small cable channel that grew into a global brand, and it is highly recommended for anyone in the startup world today.