The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network premiered in 1979 as the USA's first 24-hour sports network, and as a network dedicated solely to the sports fan, they have never interrupted a game for regularly scheduled programming, interrupted a playoff game for pre-race coverage of the Kentucky Derby, or carried multiple games at the same time while blacking out every out-of-market game being played at the time, regardless of whether or not it was one of the games they were carrying.
They do, however, shamelessly shill for the superstar athletes, including breaking into coverage in order to show live look-ins at Barry Bonds's at-bats when he was chasing Hank Aaron's record, doing the same thing with Manny Ramirez's rehab appearances in the minors when coming back from a 50-game suspension for PED use, actively televising Roger Clemens's minor league rehab starts when he decided to un-retire midseason and then his starts for an independent minor league team when he tried to unretire at age 50 to delay his Hall of Fame eligibility an additional 5 years, and letting LeBron James spend an hour telling us which team he'll play for in the next year, something done by every other athlete and team via a one-page press release.note
They are often accused of being biased towards teams from certain regions—usually the Boston and New York teams, perhaps understandable due to their Connecticut home (a common nickname for ESPN is the Eastern Sports Promotion Network), but also the L.A. Dodgers, the L.A. Lakers, USC, the Cubs, the Heat, and whatever team Brett Favre decided to play for. There is a series of memes depicting them as the Tim Tebow or LeBron network. But enough about their common criticisms...
ESPN and its many affiliated networks — ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Deportes (Spanish-language), ESPNU, ESPN America (a European network that shows US and Canadian sports), BT Sport ESPN (originally ESPN UK, which scored a slice of the domestic English Premiership after the demise of Setanta Sports; Craig Ferguson's dream come true!), TSN (Canada's English-language ESPN), RDS (Canada's French-language ESPN), along with ESPN Radio and online affiliates ESPN3.com and ESPN+ — broadcast sports and sports news around the world. The company also had a division known as ESPN Plus (spelled out, unlike the current streaming network that uses the plus sign) that syndicated sports events to local TV stations. However, thanks to the proliferation of competing outlets both within and outside the company, ESPN left the syndication business, converting that division to ESPN Events, a sports event planner. Needless to say, the events planned by that group, most notably a ridiculous number of college football bowl games, are inevitably aired on ESPN networks.
They currently hold the broadcast rights to Monday Night Football, one baseball game a week on Sunday nights, 4 NBA games a week (2 games on Wednesday and Friday night), the NHL (shared with TNT), the World Series of Poker, and the majority of college sports including all but three college football bowl games.* They also air most of the early rounds and finals of major tennis tournaments (except for the French Open, where NBC holds the rights), and, under the umbrella title ESPN on ABC, any sporting event broadcast on ABC, a sister company under the grand unifying banner of the Walt Disney Company—and yes, this included the later rounds of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the earlier rounds of which were broadcast on ESPN until 2013.note
ESPN2 originally launched as a youth-skewing sports channel nicknamed "The Deuce", and (putting aside coverage of NHL, NASCAR and the X Games) used to broadcast even more obscure stuff in its early years, most notably Magic: The Gathering tournaments (yes, seriously), perhaps keying in on the "E" in ESPN. An ESPN Classic show, Cheap Seats, used some of these older tapes of weird events ESPN had laying around and tried to MST them. Because the channel has become more mainstream in recent years, obscure sports will have to find a new home, like the Ocho (which ESPN has since begun to defictionalize once a year). (Incidentally, ESPN originally was conceived as a 24-hour version of ABC's Wide World of Sports. And then, so was ESPN2.)
ESPN's signature show is SportsCenter, which has been running multiple episodes per night since the network launched in September of 1979. This means there are over 60,000 episodes of SportsCenter, primarily of the hour-long variety, and more commonly longer than shorter. Specialized versions of SportsCenter for other major sports are common, most notably Baseball Tonight, NBA Countdown, College GameDay (football and basketball-flavored), and NFL Countdown (Sunday and Monday versions).
Other shows include Get Up (a morning show hosted by Mike Greenberg), First Take (formerly Cold Pizza), Jim Rome is Burning (until it ended), Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, SportsNation, Numbers Never* Lie and Highly Questionablenote , which are different varieties of having people spouting off sports opinions in loud voices, which is probably the coolest job ever. However, there are limits to how loud and abrasive you're allowed to be in opinionating, as evidenced by the failure of Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith (though he recovered to keep doing First Take). Liberal political commentator Keith Olbermann got his start as a SportsCenter anchor (and returned to do his own sports show from 2013 to 2015). Former late-night talk show host Craig Kilborn is also an ESPN alum, as are Good Morning America anchors Robin Roberts and Josh Elliott. Other sports networks also host ESPN alumni (Dave Revsine and Mike Hall on the Big Ten Network, to name a couple... and Hall got his job on ESPN by winning Dream Job, an ESPN reality show.)
ESPN The Magazine launched in 1998. It generally took a more humorous approach than other sporting magazines, and even managed to snag Rick Reilly away from Sports Illustrated in order to facilitate this, although SI managed to exact some measure of revenge by grabbing longtime ESPN personality Dan Patrick. Still, judging by the state of the back page of SI after Reilly left, it seems ESPN got the better end of the deal. (Speaking of deals, when Monday Night Football moved from ABC to ESPN, Disney traded Al "Do You Believe In Miracles?" Michaels to NBC Universal for the rights to an old Walt Disney character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, something he found amusing. Again, all true, and Oswald's return to the fold is being marked by a prominent part in Epic Mickey.) In 2009 the magazine started running an annual "Body Issue", with pictures of athletes in the nude (though no naughty bits are shown), which could be seen as a direct competitor to SI's famous Swimsuit Edition.note The magazine was discontinued in 2019.
In 2001, ESPN opened up an Original Entertainment division, for scripted movies and TV shows. This led to the short-lived cult poker themed series Tilt and the brilliant football themed series Playmakers, which sadly was canceled under pressure from the NFL (the league was not happy with the way the show portrayed the seedier side of professional football). The backlash from the cancellation of Playmakers, along with the bombing of Tilt, killed any hopes of further series as critics accused ESPN of caving to pressure, resulting in them refocusing their efforts into TV movies (A Season on the Brink (about Bob Knight, who is now an ESPN analyst), The Junction Boys (about Paul "Bear" Bryant's first summer at Texas A&M), 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story (Self-explanatory),) as well as mini-series such as The Bronx is Burning (a miniseries about the Yankees' turbulent 1977 season), and Four Minutes (about Roger Bannister running the first 4-minute mile in 1954). ESPN Original Entertainment was renamed ESPN Films in 2008.
Their 30 For 30 series, a series of 30 documentaries on varying subjects, originally created in 2009 in celebration of ESPN's 30th anniversary by columnist Bill Simmons, has been critically acclaimed, and has been in its third "season" since 2015. note The five-part 30 for 30 documentary O.J.: Made in America ran for a week in theaters in Santa Monica and New York City before it aired on ESPN, a decision that allowed the series to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.note
The network also hosts their own awards show, the ESPYs, celebrating the best moments and athletes in sports in the past year. The show is traditionally taped on the day after the MLB All-Star Game, a day where none of the four major US sports has anything going on so as to ensure maximum participation from the athletes. From year one, the highlight of the event is usually the speech given to the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, first given to Jim Valvano, who was in the last stages of cancer; he gave his famous "Don't give up" speech that year, and ESPN honors his memory each year by maintaining the V Foundation for Cancer Research, holding a charity auction week every year leading up to the ESPYs where fans can bid on major fan experiences. Other prominent speeches from winners of that award (and the subsequently created Jimmy V Award for Perseverance) include Stuart Scott, Caitlyn Jenner, and Craig Sager.