As Mali mentioned earlier in the week, the two of us had a discussion during the UConn-Stanford women’s semifinal game about the potential role that ESPN may have played in the rise of Connecticut basketball to the lofty heights of being the only school to win the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in the same year; the Huskies have now accomplished that feet twice, in 2004 and again this year. We all know how Nike money and favoritism has helped to build Oregon football into a major power and as Mali mentioned, the power of ESPN to shape college football is well known. This article isn’t meant to be sour grapes or to take anything away from UConn’s impressive accomplishments and the talented players and coaches they have assembled. Rather, it is meant to look at the power that tv networks can wield on the outcomes of the sports that they cover, something that is increasingly important to be aware of as conference realignment and expansion is now being driven by tv networks (see Big Ten expansion into the New York and DC markets).
Headquartered in Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN launched in 1979. Originally intended as a network to cover all sports in the state of Connecticut, the focus was changed to national sports coverage due to the affordability of distributing the network broadcast nationally via satellite. Despite struggling financially in its early years, ESPN began to become a major force in the sports world with the signing of contracts with the professional sports leagues: the NBA in 1982, the USFL in 1983, and ultimately the NFL in 1987. These contracts, along with the contract that ESPN had signed with the NCAA upon the network’s inception, set the sports network on the path to becoming the dominant media influence in modern sports.