Sports, television, United States

Evolution of the American Sports Network

By August 2013, all of the four major television networks in the US have their own national sports network.

By August 2013, all of the four major television networks in the US will have their own national sports network.

Before the debut of ESPN in 1979, the only sports coverage available to the American viewer were those on the major and regional terrestrial networks, most of which could not air them live due to programming concerns. Nowadays more and more sports events were being aired live on a daily basis, thanks in part to the growth of cable and satellite television and the establishment of more television networks devoted to sports coverage. But where did it all start?

Bill Rasmussen, his son Scott, and Ed Eagan founded ESPN in September 1979. Originally known as the ‘Entertainment and Sports Programming Network‘, ESPN overcame a shaky financial start to position themselves as the ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’. Its flagship program SportsCenter became the first news program dedicated exclusively to sports coverage. In the years that followed, ESPN became a global conglomerate, launching sister networks ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN Radio and ESPNEWS, along with establishing global networks in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

In 1996, the Walt Disney Company acquired a majority stake on ESPN. Gradually ESPN programming were integrated to ABC, starting a long-term integration that eventually became the ESPN on ABC. Today ESPN’s sports properties included the NBA, Major League Baseball, college football, NFL’s Monday Night Football, college basketball, WNBA, and NASCAR. ESPN was also instrumental in bringing the X Games to the American mainstream; beginning in 1995, the X Games were being held annually during the summer and winter months, even sprouting international versions along the way.

As ESPN prospered during the 1980s, regional sports networks were also being established to provide extensive coverage of the local teams and other sports. Currently there are two major regional sports networks in the United States: Fox Sports Networks and Comcast SportsNet. Fox Sports Networks, originally Fox Sports Net, acquired the SportsChannel and Prime networks in the late 1990s and eventually integrated the Fox Sports name and identity. Comcast SportsNet had its roots in Philadelphia as the Prism Network, before taking the current name in 1997. Soon after CSN either replaced or acquired assets of other regional networks in Washington D.C., Chicago, New England, San Francisco Bay Area and Oregon. In 2011, parent company Comcast acquired a majority stake on NBCUniversal, eventually integrating CSN to the NBC Sports Group. Other regional sports networks active today include the MSG networks in the New York area, Root Sports, the YES Network, NESN, and Time Warner Cable Sports.

As sports coverage grew, so did the urge of forming their own national sports network. The CBS Sports Network had its roots as the National College Sports Network. Formed in 2002, the network focused mostly on coverage of college sports. After CBS acquired the network in 2008, it was renamed into the CBS College Sports Network before adopting its current name in 2011 in an effort to add more sports coverage. Currently the network airs the NBA Development League, Arena Football League and extensive US Open coverage, aside from college sports. CBS Sports coverage of the NFL, the US NCAA and professional golf were also given supplementary coverage by the network.

The NBC Sports Network had its roots as the Outdoor Life Network, founded in 1995. As the name suggests, the network aired mostly outdoor adventure programming. By the time it was renamed Versus in 2006, it had supplanted outdoor-related programming in favor of sports coverage. In 2011, Versus’ parent company Comcast acquired NBCUniversal, and gradually integrated NBC Sports programming to the network, culminating in the launch of the NBC Sports Network on New Year’s Day 2012. Currently the network airs the NHL, Major League Soccer, Formula One and Indycar racing, the English Premier League, the summer and winter Olympics, and various college sports.

In the summer of 2013, Fox planned to establish a new national sports network. The new network Fox Sports 1 is expected to make its debut in August and will air extensive coverage of Major League Baseball, club and international soccer, college sports, NASCAR and other racing events, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The new network replaces Speed, a sports network devoted to auto racing. Fox also planned to rename Fuel TV as Fox Sports 2 in the near future.

With the debut of Fox Sports 1, all of the ‘Big Four’ television networks in the US will have their own sports network. Today’s sports coverage in the US is vastly different from where it was in the 1970s, all due to technological advancements, viewer population and the growth of professional and college sports as a business. And it only continues to grow in the future.