Amanda Andrews on Media: ESPN faces tough season

Amanda Andrews
Amanda Andrews

The sports broadcaster will need strong financial and strategic backing if its UK channel is to succeed

It's all to play for at US sports broadcaster ESPN. The 'ESPN' channel launched in the UK on Monday after a fast-track process during which it has picked up a string of rights packages following the demise of Setanta.

Majority-owned by Disney, ESPN is strong on paper, with more secure financial backing than private equity-owned Setanta. However, it will face challenges and obstacles as it attempts to tackle the UK market. There are, after all, no easy games in football.

While ESPN has got off to a positive start and is unlikely to find itself sick as a parrot anytime soon, the broadcaster and its backers will need to invest heavily in the product both strategically and financially or risk finding themselves at sixes and sevens.

ESPN has taken the right steps in recent weeks. Despite its short time frame, its plans for a UK channel have been long in the making. Lynne Frank, ESPN's managing director of EMEA, has been keen to launch here since she took up the role four years ago. I get the impression that the plan has been clear for a long time and the right opportunity just needed to come along.

Embracing Sky and Virgin Media at the onset was a wise first move, as it has given instant access to millions of high-end, subscription sports fans, as well as Sky's 1.3m HD customers. Sky is also set to launch a 3D channel next year, which will focus mainly on sports. Perhaps ESPN will work with Sky to create a 3D offering - a tie-up that would appeal to viewers and advertisers alike.

Furthermore, benefits of the Disney relationship are clear, with the ability to cross-promote the channel with other Disney assets. The Disney XD channel, aimed at boys, will launch in the UK shortly and feature original British programming. One possibility is a foot-ball series featuring ESPN branding.

The channel will also be able to cross-promote across other ESPN assets, such as the popular sports websites Scrum.com and Cricinfo.com. For advertisers, this could provide an opportunity for advertising across TV and the web, targeting that usually hard to reach young male demographic. An ESPN news and analysis site focused on UK sports will launch soon, and is expected to be marketed heavily.

However, ESPN has clear obstacles. It faces competition from Sky's sports channels, which is likely to continue as Ofcom's pay-TV review suggests that BSkyB should share its premium sports coverage with others such as BT Vision and Top Up TV.

It will also have to compete with Sky in bidding for the most-popular rights packages. This is where Setanta failed, and, even with Disney's financial help, ESPN was unable to win the auction for the 2010 to 2013 Premier League rights. ESPN and its backers must be willing to bid high, or risk showing second-rate sports and its US content. For a sports channel to be a success in the UK, it must have a decent football offering.

The channel has picked up Setanta's two Premier League packages for the current season, but it has only one pack-age for 2010 to 2013. After attracting customers with the offer of the pair of football packages, ESPN's diminished coverage after the end of the current season may cause viewers and advertisers to flee if it has no plan up its sleeve.

Most importantly, it will need to invest heavily in marketing. The brand is still not widely known in the UK, despite its huge popularity in the US and many other countries.

In the style of other Disney-owned brands, there is no reason why ESPN should not become an all-inclusive family sports channel.

Amanda Andrews is media editor at The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and telegraph.co.uk

30 seconds on Disney's assets

  • The Walt Disney Company is the biggest media and entertainment conglomerate in the world.
  • It was founded in California in 1923 as an animation studio by brothers Roy and Walt Disney.
  • It owns and licenses 11 theme parks around the world, in locations including Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, California and Florida.
  • The Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group includes the film studios Touchstone, Mira-max, Hollywood Pictures, and Pixar, which it acquired in 2006 for $7.4bn (£4bn).
  • The company purchased ESPN in 1995 as part of a bigger acquisition. According to US financial magazine Barron's, in 2008 the channel was 'worth about 40% of Disney's entire value'.
  • ESPN, which was founded in 1979, was the first US channel to air sports coverage 24 hours a day.
  • In 2006, Disney agreed to purchase the UK's North American Sports Network, which was rebranded as ESPN America on 1 February 2009.
  • ESPN broadcasts 65 sports in 15 languages in more than 150 countries worldwide.

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