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In a Flyover State: Where There Is a Little Upstart Called ESPN

Here in the colonies, ESPN calls itself the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." And with its massive sub fees and unrivaled lineup of sports properties, it's hard to argue.

But the irony is if you hopped a short flight from Bristol, Connecticut, to Bristol, England, you would quickly realize that moniker couldn’t be further from the truth. And over there, ESPN is the first to admit it.

ESPN is the biggest kid on the block in America; across the pond, it is just getting started. Here, ESPN is brash and bold; in the United Kingdom, it has smartly taken a very different strategy: the polite and unassuming guest in someone else’s house. For now, anyway.

ESPN UK launched in August 2009, when a package of big-time soccer rights suddenly came up for grabs. Already in the United Kingdom with networks featuring classic sports and American sports, ESPN jumped at the chance to build a mothership in the sports-crazed country.

So, in TV’s version of a two-minute drill, ESPN threw together a network in a couple of months. Even on the day it was set to launch, the time got moved ahead and network executives had to scramble to put something up on the screen seven hours earlier than planned.

Behind the scenes, it still looks like a startup. Set in suburban London, the headquarters is bursting at the seams. While there is soccer paraphernalia everywhere, there are also people everywhere. If a broom at ESPN UK has its own closet now, it probably will be sharing it with a human before too long.

But with anchor properties like English and Scottish soccer, the pay-TV service is finding its space. It has put together a roster of wellknown on-air talent and this year added the biggest soccer tournament in England, the FA Cup. It has or is developing British versions of such U.S. shows as Pardon the Interruption. Nowadays, ESPN branding sits outside many pubs, right alongside the long-established Sky Sports logo.

But the biggest difference for me was the attitude of the ESPN staffers I met with in London. There is no sense of entitlement at being “ESPN.” It is, rather, a combination of roll-up-your-sleeves ambition coupled with a serious caution about making the network not seem like the loud Americans coming to take over. Top managers include a Dutchman and a Brit, though ESPN smartly installed veteran ESPN U.S. PR exec Paul Melvin, who knows the brand but—based on my observation—has connected very well with the British media.

Of course, like any start-up (albeit a highly funded one), ESPN UK has faced its challenges. It has already turned over its top executive (like many new networks), recently installing Sony veteran Ross Hair in the top spot. Next year, it has the rights to much fewer top-tier English soccer matches. And there are perception problems, such as the man in a pub who told me he dismisses it as “the Scottish network” because it shows so many games from the lower-regarded league.

But the timing is right for ESPN to expand into the U.K. Gone are the days when Britain was solely for the British, as international brands are everywhere. Fifteen years ago, when I was working in the press office of a pro soccer team in London, I would once in a while answer the general line in a British accent to make my life easier, as a Yank in British soccer often wasn’t respected back then. Those days are long past.

At ESPN UK’s first-ever FA Cup soccer telecast, the network set up a mobile studio right on the side of the field at a small stadium, complete with big ESPN branding. It was the perfect microcosm for the fledgling network—trying to strike the balance of introducing foreign elements without stepping on toes as the pushy Americans.

After the match, fans of the winning team rushed the field, and when they realized ESPN was live from the field-side studio, they stormed the ESPN set. Now, ESPN UK has to try to make fans seeking out an ESPN broadcast on their TV set the norm, if it truly wants to be a Worldwide Leader everywhere.

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