When ESPN2 was launched in 1993, it was meant to be the younger, hip companion to ESPN. Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott and Suzy Kolber were part of the channel. It was heavy on sports that were supposed to attract the younger sports fan – the NHL, college basketball, extreme sports (yes, the X-Games were an offshoot) and featured a thrice nightly program called SportsNight (no, not the TV series “Sports Night” that starred Peter Krause, Josh Charles and Felicty Huffman). In case you never saw “SportsNight,” here’s a sample from early in its run.

ESPN branded ESPN2 as “The Deuce” and put younger anchors on the channel and dressed them in denim shirts and leather jackets, sometimes without ties. And personalities like Bill Pidto (host of nhl2night) got a cult following.

But as ESPN2 matured, ESPN stopped marketing it as a younger version of the Mothership and began to fill it with traditional live sports and various studio programs. And while it has become the go-to channel for college basketball, college football, tennis and other sports that don’t normally air on the Mothership, it did not have that signature program or sport to make it different from its older brother.

But that is changing now. ESPN is its last advertising upfront presentation marketed ESPN2 as a stand-alone channel, relying heavily on personality-driven studio programming. Over the past 18 months, the channel has stockpiled talent from bringing back Michele Beadle to SportsNation, re-signing Keith Olbermann for his own highlight and interview program, launching a program with Dan LeBatard, developing a new show for Colin Cowherd and becoming the home for Outside the Lines. They’ve joined the likes of Mike & Mike, First Take, and Numbers Never Lie – all personality-driven programming.

A quick look at ESPN2’s daily afternoon lineup (all times Eastern) shows this growing emphasis:

3 p.m. — SportsNation (Michelle Beadle, Max Kellerman, Marcellus Wiley)
4 p.m. — Highly Questionable (Dan LeBatard, Bomani Jones)
4:30 p.m. — You Herd Me With Colin Cowherd
5 p.m. — Olbermann
5:30 p.m. — Outside the Lines (Bob Ley)

Compare it to ESPN’s current afternoon lineup:

3 p.m. — NFL Insiders
4 p.m. — NFL Live
5 p.m. — Around the Horn
5:30 p.m. — Pardon the Interruption

ESPN2 has built a formidable lineup and as executives downplay any notion that 2’s shows cannibalize the Mothership’s ratings, the higher-ups have to be pleased with the channel’s ratings.

Sports Business Journal notes that the average weekday viewership for ESPN2 from September 2013 to August 2014 totaled 271,000 while NBCSN totaled 92,000 and Fox Sports 1 59,000. ESPN executives are pointing to those numbers saying that ESPN2 should be the number 2 cable sports network and NBCSN and FS1 are fighting for third place.

In a rare public crack at the competition, one ESPN executive said that the competition between not just ESPN, but ESPN2 and its respective competitors was not even close:

“In a lot of the articles written about the anniversary of FS1, the channel is compared to NBC Sports Network and ESPN,” said Eric Johnson, ESPN’s executive vice president of global multimedia sales. “In none of the stories that I read did ESPN2 come up as a point of reference. We know that over the course of the year, ESPN2 still is doing double the rating of some of those. We’re trying to make sure that we sell to advertisers that ESPN2 is the second-ranked sports cable network that exists.”

“In my mind, [Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network] are competing with ESPN2,” Johnson added. “And they’re not winning.”

Even as the afternoon lineup of ESPN2’s attracts viewers, advertisers still buy ESPN’s Family of Networks as one entity knowing that they can place ads from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and so on. They do the same for Fox’s and NBC’s sports programming. Ironically enough, it was Olbermann himself reportedly selling advertisers on ESPN2 as the number two brand in sports media:

“All this time, ESPN has been the No. 1 sports network, the No. 1 brand in sports,” Olbermann told the crowd of ad buyers. “And the No. 2 sports network? The No. 2 brand in sports? ESPN2.”

If ESPN2 can develop sports that aren’t seen on ESPN, then it could start to market itself as a separate network as they did at the birth of “The Deuce.” But until then, viewers and advertisers will still see ESPN2 as a companion channel to ESPN. It’s tough for ESPN to have their cake and eat it too as far as their secondary channel is concerned. For sports fans, many years of thinking towards ESPN and ESPN2 in that way will not be easily broken.

As executives attempt to market ESPN2 as its own entity, the channel has certainly come full circle. The one-time home of Keith Olbermann has him back selling the network as carving out its own identity, just as it did on its launch night 21 years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Sports Business Journal]

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the four Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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