The Faith and Fanaticism of ESPN

Apr 29, 2016

When ESPN first launched in 1979, it was unclear how the public would respond to an all-sports cable channel. Three years later, a woman actually named ESPN in her divorce suit, claiming the network ruined her married by offering too much coverage. Travis Vogan says ESPN has fomented fanaticism not just for the teams it depicts, but for the network itself. One example of this? People naming their babies Espn (pronounced ‘es-pin’).

“It speaks to how important ESPN is and how it's spanned well beyond a cable outlet. It’s not just a TV channel, it’s a sort of cultural touchstone. It’s a way of creating community, it’s a way of asserting your identity.”

Vogan says that type of cultural significance is no accident.

“It’s not just an entity that’s delivering sports, but it’s a framework through which we see the world. Nobody’s going to name their kid Espn because it sounds cool or because they think it’s a fascinating name. They’re going to name their kid Espn because of the meanings we attach to ESPN, and those meanings exceed the realm of sports. ESPN has done all kinds of things to kind of ensure that this brand has meaning that exceeds sports, that it’s powerful, that it has some sort of weight attached to it.”

Travis Vogan is an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and American Studies at the University of Iowa. He wrote the book ESPN: The Making of Sports Media Empire.

More than 35 years after ESPN was launched, 80 percent of households with at least one television set pay for ESPN as a part of their cable package. In this edition of River to River, host Lindsey Moon talks with Vogan about how the network has transformed the way we consume and think about sports.