Getting inside the business of cable sports

What more can viewers expect from cable sports television? ESPN Vice President of Marketing Sean Bratches, a 1984 graduate of the College of Business, explained the objectives and vision of his industry on a visit to RIT.

"We're mandated to constantly innovate," he said about the cable business. "We at ESPN aim to give viewers the ultimate viewing experience." Viewers must be pleased so far; data demonstrate that 70 percent of people in the country catch ESPN at least once a month, Bratches said. "Out of the 99 million households with a television, ESPN is in 75 million." Propelled by its first full season of NFL games and major league baseball's home-run-record chase, ESPN finished with the top 12 most-viewed cable programs in 1998 and 20 of the top 25, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

The sports channel got its start in 1970 as a regional sports network in Bristol, Conn., beaming programming via satellite, Bratches explained.

The growth of national cable services in the 1980s means that now ESPN is a multimedia company, with its fingers in all sorts of communication pies. Consider among their ventures pay-per-view channels; the ESPN Zone, a dining/gaming/sports-viewing facility in Chicago; ESPN.com, a busy Web site; sports music CDs; ESPN, the magazine; and don't forget ESPN, the sports merchandise store. "We're positioning ourselves as a world-class provider of sports information" Bratches said.

After the huge growth of cable systems in the 1980s and into the '90s, the industry is now being rebuilt, Bratches said. Revenue growth then was based on creating a large base of viewers. Now that most television homes have cable, growth will have to come from alternative uses of cable in the home, like movies and other pay-per-view services, and telephone and computer systems.

Another big change facing the cable industry is the eventual conversion of the system to high definition television (HDTV) technology. "Sports and movie viewing will drive the HDTV market," he said.

The University Magazine, Spring 1999