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Editor’s Note: Encyclo has not been regularly updated since August 2014, so information posted here is likely to be out of date and may be no longer accurate. It’s best used as a snapshot of the media landscape at that point in time.

ESPN is a cable broadcaster that specializes in sports events, news and analysis.

ESPN’s majority owner is the Walt Disney Co., which bought ESPN’s parent network, ABC, in 1995. Hearst Corp. owns a minority stake in the network.

ESPN proclaims itself as the “worldwide leader in sports,” and it owns six cable channels, a biweekly magazine, and 46 international television networks. It also has about 750 radio affiliates. With a projected 2012 revenue of $8.2 billion and estimated value of $50 billion in 2014, it is by far the largest sports media brand in the United States and may be the nation’s most valuable media property overall.

Some have suggested, however, it could eventually be challenged by a variety of competitors, including CBS and Comcast, with its 2011 purchase of NBC Universal and subsequent launch of the NBC Sports Network, though that network has initially struggled to gain traction. News Corp. has also launched competing networks Fox Sports 1 and 2, which are squarely aimed at ending ESPN’s broadcast dominance.

ESPN was launched in 1979 as a small cable channel characterized by its banter and broadcasts of mostly minor sporting events. During the 1990s and 2000s, it moved further into original reporting, hiring numerous journalists from traditional media outlets.

ESPN’s website, launched in 1995, is the third-largest sports site on the web, behind Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports, and has won numerous awards. ESPN’s mobile site, launched in 2005, is the United States’ largest mobile sports site, its largest mobile news site and among the largest overall mobile sites. In 2013, the audience of ESPN’s mobile site surpassed that of its main site.

ESPN has been criticized for its forays into entertainment television, as well as its role in popularizing shouted sports discourse. It also has drawn fire for excessiveness, pushing certain topics to gain ratingsspeculative reporting, and for a conflict of interest by over-covering sports for which it owns broadcasting rights and for playing a major role in college athletic scheduling and conference realignment. Those criticisms reached a peak in July 2010 with ESPN’s broadcast of NBA star LeBron James’ free-agency decision in a special partly dictated by James’ marketing company. Concerns about conflict of interest sprang up again in 2013, when ESPN pulled out of a documentary with Frontline on the NFL’s response to head injuries reportedly as a result of pressure from the league.

ESPN instituted an ombudsman in 2005, the first sports media outlet to do so. In February 2011, it announced the Poynter Institute would serve as its ombudsman, making it the first news organization to have an institution rather than an individual as its ombudsman. The Poynter Review Project concluded in 2012, and ESPN returned to an individual ombudsman (Robert Lipsyte) the following year.

ESPN launched Grantland, a sports and pop-culture site built around longtime columnist Bill Simmons in 2011. Two years later, it hired Nate Silver and turned his blog, FiveThirtyEight, into a similarly free-standing site built around statistical analysis. Grantland, FiveThirtyEight, and ESPN Films are run under ESPN’s Exit 31 unit.

Much of ESPN.com is free, but the site has a premium subscription service called Insider with 400,000 subscribers as of 2012. The company began charging for access for its magazine’s website and in 2012 had 670,000 combined subscribers for the magazine and Insider. The site also includes a subscription-based streaming-video service called ESPN3.

In 2009, ESPN issued social media guidelines limiting the type of information its employees are allowed to post. It further tightened those restrictions in 2011, particularly for breaking news. It has also suspended writers from social media for violations. ESPN reached an agreement with Twitter in 2013 to begin showing videos on the service.

ESPN opened a Developer Center in March 2012, making APIs open to developers to build ESPN-based apps. It shut down its public API in 2014.

ESPN Local is a network of locally focused websites under the ESPN banner. The effort began in April 2009 with ESPN Chicago and has since expanded to include Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York.

The sites grew quickly — the first, ESPN Chicago, became the city’s most popular sports site within three months — and have been perceived as a major threat to local media outlets’ sports coverage. However, ESPN was reported in late 2010 to be slowing its local growth into new cities. The sites are primarily staffed by former traditional-media journalists. In 2013, hired blogging reporters to cover every NFL team; many of those also came from traditional media outlets.

In May 2010, ESPN launched five local-based iPhone apps, and it also has apps for its magazine and its premium site subscription.

In 2013, ESPN reportedly laid off several hundred employees, leading to questions about whether its climbing rights fees were squeezing its finances.

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Primary author: Mark Coddington. Main text last updated: August 14, 2014.
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