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Worldwide leader expands

ABC Sports to become known as 'ESPN on ABC'

Posted: Thursday August 10, 2006 2:54PM; Updated: Friday August 11, 2006 12:33AM
ABC Sports
Sports programming on ABC will take on the look of ESPN next month, using graphics, sets and signs from their cable partner.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The sports division that spanned the globe to give viewers a constant variety of sports and famously asked pigskin-crazed fans if they were ready for some football has a new name: ESPN on ABC. ESPN will become the overarching brand for all sports programming carried on the ABC Television Network beginning Saturday, Sept. 2 -- the debut of ABC's college football season. "We're using the word evolutionary," said George Bodenheimer, President, ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks. "We're trying to move the ball forward in sports television and we think this is another step in that direction."

ESPN said the new approach will cover all of the sports programming on ABC, encompassing all aspects of the production effort including on-air look, graphics and branding. "It's going to be interesting news outside of the sports media industry," said sports television consultant Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who runs his own consultancy firm and often works with ESPN. "It reflects the continued expansion of influence of ESPN. This is a company that not only has four 24/7 cable channels, plus it's online, Internet, mobile phone, you name it, they now will basically contract for and control some 400 hours of network broadcast time. This isn't to say they don't already do it. But now they are going to have this additional brand platform."

The move merely confirms what has become standard operating procedure for ESPN. Many ESPN staffers have long referred to ABC Sports as either ESPN 3 or ESPN South. Bodenheimer himself carries the title of president of both ESPN and ABC Sports (NFL Network boss Steve Bornstein held the same title prior to Bodenheimer). The two entities were already heavily linked prior to today: The ESPN ABC Sports Customer Marketing and Sales division markets and sells packages across the ESPN assets, a move initiated by ESPN executive vice president of content, John Skipper. The ESPN communications department has handled public relations for ABC Sports for the past year. Both the television industry and viewers are comfortable with the cross branding and cross promotion that exists between ABC and ESPN. ABC currently airs the NBA Finals, the Indianapolis 500, Belmont Stakes, British Open, World Cup, WNBA, MLS, the Little League World Series, and in 2007 will carry all 10 races in the Chase for the Championship. That will not change with this announcement. Nor will ESPN-only properties migrate to ABC. 

ESPN executives said no other names beside "ESPN on ABC" was considered. Bodenheimer cited the Monday Night Football package moving from ABC to ESPN and the addition of the NASCAR package in 2007 as factors that prompted today's announcement. Do not underestimate the impact of the 18 to 34 crowd in this decision. Changing the name to ESPN on ABC appeals to younger viewers who identify sports only through ESPN.

"If you want the real simplest answer is people like ESPN, and we're expanding their opportunity to view it," Bodenheimer said.

Skipper said the ABC logo will be present at all times on ESPN on ABC. Program guides and on-air promotions will direct viewers to the ABC network where they'll find the usual scoreboards, graphics and signage used on ESPN. "It's one integrated unit," said Skipper. "All of our talent will be identified from this point forward as ESPN talent but we have lots of talented people who are identified with ABC."

Both Bodenheimer and Skipper made it a point to shower respect on ABC Sports during a conference call, emphasizing that the move was about ESPN's strength in the marketplace as opposed to the devaluing of the ABC Sports brand. ESPN management reached out over the past couple of days to former ABC Sports executives to inform them of the upcoming announcement according to Stephen Solomon, who worked as a senior vice president of programming for ABC Sports in the 1980s and is now is the president and chief operating officer of SAS Sports, a New York-based sports consulting firm. "ABC Sports has a treasured history and past," Solomon said. "It was and had been until recently still one of the strongest brands in sports. But clearly it's taking a back seat to the power of ESPN and the 24/7 sports property. As a businessman, I certainly understand what they are doing. But as an ex-ABC sports executive, it's hard to see that great history fade away."

ESPN executives said that their research showed that the popularity of the ABC Sports brand relative to CBS Sports and NBC Sports remained in good shape.

So why change the name?

"Because ESPN is that much stronger," Bodenheimer said. "In many respects ABC Sports paved the way for this entire business and for what ESPN is enjoying today. Just because we're moving to focus on ESPN doesn't in any way diminish in any way our respect for what has been built."