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Expansion Team

ESPN Pushes Its Cult Status--but Will the Faithful Buy It?

November 20, 1997|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRISTOL, Conn. — With as many as 50 million believers across America, it qualifies as a major religion, but what the faithful seem to love most about ESPN is that it has stayed true to its roots as a cult.

Fans of the all-sports cable TV channel relish the fact that not everybody "gets" ESPN. Not everybody can recite or even comprehend the secret mantra--"Back, back, back!"--that proclaims one's status as an acolyte.

Retaining its sly, insider appeal is no mean trick for a network that in 18 years has grown to reach more than 73 million U.S. households, or roughly the same proportion of the population as can locate Connecticut on a map.

The trick can only get tougher as ESPN, now firmly under the wing of parent Walt Disney Co., stretches from sportscasting into retail stores, a biweekly sports magazine, ESPN-themed restaurants, video games and who knows what other ventures.

Brand extension is never a zero-risk strategy.

For a niche player such as ESPN, one potential danger arises from what might be called the Groucho Paradox, based on the Marx remark "I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

A sense of exclusivity gives the brand part of its zest, and how exclusive can it be if every toddler at the mall starts sporting an ESPN golf cap?

But partly because of the involvement of Disney--the king of brand extension--experts say the downside is limited.

"Unless they were to have a major fiasco that would reflect back on the core property, the risks are primarily financial," says Stephen A. Greyser, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

In other words, even if the side ventures lose money, there should be little threat to the main broadcasting business.

What a business it is. With estimated net advertising revenue of $440 million this year, ESPN is "the most economically successful franchise in the history of cable TV," declares analyst Jeff Flathers of Paul Kagan Associates.

Its penetration among young, upscale males is tops in the industry. "They're an advertiser's dream, which is one reason why people pay top dollar to be there," Flathers says.

Disney Chairman (and sports-nut-in-chief) Michael Eisner said as much when he called ESPN the key to his 1996 purchase of its then-parent, Capital Cities/ABC Inc.

With Eisner looking over their shoulders, everyone involved in the ESPN brand extension is being careful to milk this cash cow gently.

"We won't do anything without quality," vows ESPN President Steve Bornstein.

On the other hand, ESPN can't move so deliberately that it lets its well-financed rivals gain ground.

Fox SportsNet, News Corp.'s regional sports network, already reaches nearly 50 million households and is growing fast. And Sports Illustrated--the main target of the ESPN magazine slated for launch next March--is nipping at its rival's broadcast heels with its CNN-SI cable sports channel

But the beauty of ESPN's brand extension, executives say, is that it also plays defense: If the new ventures tighten ESPN's grip on the sports lobe of America's brain, they may strengthen the appeal of the network's sporting events and news programs.

The ESPN culture being what it is, it's no surprise that the executive directly responsible for the care and feeding of the brand name has two bum knees from aggressive skiing on Mt. Hood, plus a crooked finger from an old football injury.

The only mild surprise is that her background is in packaged goods, not broadcasting.

But Judy Fearing, senior vice president of marketing, says the same rules apply to ESPN as to her former employers, Nabisco and PepsiCo.

"Every great brand has an equally strong brand personality," Fearing says. "If you're not unique, you're generic."

She cites one hot-selling item to illustrate how ESPN hopes to burnish its hip image even in the mass-market setting of the new retail outlets: a sweatshirt emblazoned with the crest of the Bristol University School of Football.

To agnostics, the name means nothing. To the cognoscenti, however, it's a clever nod to the fictitious institution of higher learning featured in a hilarious series of promotional spots for ESPN programming. The conceit of the ads, created by Wieden & Kennedy in New York, is that Bristol, as hometown of ESPN, is the hub of the global sports universe.

*

At the ESPN Grill--the first is set to open next summer in Baltimore--naturally there will be plenty of TVs showing "SportsCenter" or whatever game is playing, but the service staff will also be selected for sports literacy and perhaps a whiff of ESPN's trademark attitude. The knowing, slightly tongue-in-cheek demeanor of ESPN's announcers is an important part of the brand's value. Sure, ESPN dishes out sports news around the clock, but it's the attitude that sets it apart.

"You're not going to last long at ESPN unless you bring that spark," says Seattle Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon, a regular viewer.

Rick Burton of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center calls it "the authenticity vibe."

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