If the Bristol behemoth were a stand-alone company instead of a Walt Disney Co./Hearst Corporation co-venture, it would be the most valuable media property in the world, worth $40 billion against annual revenues of $10.3 billion, according to one estimate. Wherever sports happens or is discussed — cable, broadcast TV, radio, online, mobile and print — one ESPN tentacle can be found wrapped tight around it, squeezing out revenue, and the others probing for fresh sucking places. It speaks four languages in more than 61 countries and has a larger standing army than Canada. I made up that army fact, but if ESPN had one it would be the world’s most predatory, profitable and entertaining.
Like Alexander the Great, ESPN has recorded so many victories in such a brief time that it will soon weep upon discovering that no additional sports worlds exist to conquer. The company has entered its mop-up phase, a place where most mature companies end up, doing more of what it does best, finding new ways to serve the old stuff, but not advancing at the old velocity. But if ESPN wanted to break out of the gold-plated sports ghetto that it now owns, what better strategy than to spend its millions refashioning itself as “The Worldwide Leader in News.” International news. Political news. Domestic news. Cultural news. Business and financial news. Local news (it already has a sports presence in five top cities). Weather. And, yeah, even sports.
The idea isn’t as fanciful as it seems. ESPN has been trundling in the news direction for a couple of decades now, at least since its executive editor John A. Walsh joined in 1988, and built out such franchises as ESPN Radio, ESPN The Magazine, its documentaries, the network’s Outside the Lines investigative work (see this Bonnie D. Ford investigation on triathlon deaths and former New York Times-man Don Van Natta Jr.’s feature on the rise of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell), and more. Walsh notably raided newspaper sports sections for reporters, picking up such stars as Chris Mortensen and Peter Gammons. In 2011, ESPN added its Grantland website, a longform journalism site that weds sports to pop culture (examples, the Hollywood Prospectus blog and the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris).
ESPN’s recent acquisition of statistician/journalist Nate Silver further extends the company’s news reach. Silver, who started his journalism career in sports, will cover that topic and every news variety that generates numbers — politics and elections, economics, government, weather, science, culture, pick-up-sticks, et al. That’s a roomy mandate. It’s as if ESPN’s chiefs flew Silver to the North Pole and said, “Son, everything south of here belongs to you.” Silver’s help-wanted shingle gives a sense of his ambitions, stating that candidates who bring writing chops, statistical savvy, and programming skills with them are more likely to win a job. “Let’s say fewer things but be more correct about them,” is Silver’s editorial philosophy.