Tuesday, March 13, 2007


By Sam Caplan

There’s a term within the sports broadcasting industry called “the ESPN treatment.” The term is a reference to the red carpet treatment the so-called “Worldwide Leader in Sports” devotes to sports conglomerates it has business dealings with.

For example, when the NBA’s television contract was up several years ago there was a push from within the league to sign a deal with ESPN. Believe it or not, the deal was not solely consummated because of money due to a prestige aspect that comes along with being affiliated with ESPN. The prestige element is something that can’t be translated into dollars and cents.

There’s also the belief that when a sports entity jumps into bed with ESPN that the network devotes more attention to it. As such, the ESPN treatment is a treatment that most major sports leagues covet, with some going so far as to offering “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” an ownership stake in their brand.

After all, ESPN can make or break a sport.

Don’t believe me?

Just look at what has happened to the NHL. Does it still even exist? Without formal ties to the network, ESPN devotes token coverage to hockey, at best. When the NHL does garner attention from ESPN, it feels like hockey is only being covered just so Barry Melrose can have a job.

In contrast to the NHL, look at how much more attention ESPN and ESPN.com are devoting to NASCAR these days now that the two juggernauts are doing business again. NASCAR isn’t growing as fast as it had been, and their television ratings were down last year, but watch what happens after NASCAR receives the “ESPN treatment.” Don’t be surprised when NASCAR’s ratings easily best last year’s effort.

In addition to NASCAR, the Arena Football League is another example of a sports entity that has recently signed on with ESPN.

The AFL is an interesting story into itself, having been covered in recent years by NBC in a cashless deal. ESPN will begin broadcasting the indoor football league within the next several weeks, and as a part of the deal, ESPN will take an ownership stake in the league. In return, the AFL will have its games televised in the prestigious Monday Night Football slot which in the past had been reserved for NFL games only. The legitimacy that comes with being affiliated not only with ESPN, but the MNF franchise, is the type of thing alluded to earlier that can’t be measured monetarily. As a part of the “ESPN treatment,” the AFL will have both pre-game and post-game shows broadcast on ESPN -- something NBC never bothered to do.

The AFL made a great deal for itself but there’s no bigger winner than NASCAR.

NASCAR was already getting a lot of coverage but as we touched on earlier, it’s receiving more than ever. In addition to getting a daily show called NASCAR Now, we’re seeing extended NASCAR coverage on SportsCenter, ESPNews, ESPN Radio, and in ESPN the Magazine.

The next sport that could become recipient of the ESPN treatment could be mixed martial arts, and more specifically, the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

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