Challenges Ahead for ESPN in the UK

By Alex Weprin 

ESPN is the premier media company for sports coverage here in the U.S., with ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and all a regular part of many fans’ media diet. In the U.K. however, the company is still viewed as an outsider attempting to storm the local shores.

It was just over a year ago that ESPN acquired the rights to broadcast Premier League football games when Setanta Sports went under, drawing much hay from local fans worried the company would “Americanize” the coverage of their favorite (or favourite) sport. That didn’t happen, as a fascinating interview with ESPN chief George Bodenheimer in The Guardian points out.

“We’re not interested in being the US sports network that appeared on your shores. We want to be the sports network that is authentic, that understands fans’ passion and is doing a great job in its market. We don’t see ourselves as an import…”

Hiring local talent, including Ray Stubbs and Kevin Keegan, and using Sky’s pictures (it will use its own cameras from this season), were a conscious attempt not to scare the horses and fit with Bodenheimer’s localisation mantra.

While ESPN has made the transition as smooth as possible, it faces new challenges going forward: The number of Premier League games it has rights to will be cut dramatically this season, and those that it does air will “be aired in the less-attractive Saturday teatime slot,” The Guardian writes.

Sky Sports, owned by News Corp. has the rights to the other Premier League games, and is at the moment the dominant sports programmer in the U.K. Bodenheimer is betting that if ESPN can secure the right rights, his network will gain ground.

He is clear the UK remains a key priority for ESPN, despite the dominance of Sky, and remains unwavering in his belief that the pull – and revenue-generating potential – of big sporting moments will only continue to increase. “You can read about it in the business section, in the entertainment section, in the social section. It’s all pervasive. It’s no longer just the sport, it’s a major part of the culture of the world. And these events continue to demonstrate that time after time.

For once, ESPN is the underdog.