ESPN on ABC (known as ABC Sports from 1961 to 2006) is the brand used for sports event and documentary programming televised on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the United States. Officially, the broadcast network retains its own sports division; however, for all practical purposes, ABC's sports division has been merged into ESPN Inc., the parent subsidiary of cable sports network ESPN that is majority owned by ABC's corporate parent, The Walt Disney Company, in partnership with the Hearst Communications.
ABC broadcasts use ESPN's production and announcing staff, and incorporate elements such as ESPN-branded on-screen graphics, SportsCenter in-game updates, and the BottomLine ticker. The ABC logo is used for identification purposes as a digital on-screen graphic during sports broadcasts on the network, and in promotions to disambiguate events airing the broadcast network from those shown on the ESPN cable channel.
The broadcast network's sports event coverage carried the ABC Sports brand prior to September 2, 2006. When ABC acquired a controlling interest in ESPN in 1984, it operated the cable network separately from its network sports division. The integration of ABC Sports with ESPN began after The Walt Disney Company bought ABC in 1996. The branding change to ESPN on ABC was made to better orient ESPN viewers with event telecasts on ABC and provide consistent branding for all sports broadcasts on Disney-owned channels (shortly thereafter, ESPN2's in-game graphics were likewise altered to simply use the main "ESPN" brand). Despite its name, ABC's sports coverage is supplemental to ESPN and (with occasional exceptions) not a simulcast of programs aired by the network, although ESPN and ESPN2 will often carry ABC's regional broadcasts that otherwise would not air in certain markets.
When Roone Arledge came to ABC Sports as a producer of NCAA football games in 1960, the network was in financial shambles. The International Olympic Committee even wanted a bank to guarantee ABC's contract to broadcast the 1960 Olympics. At the time, Edgar Scherick served as the de facto head of ABC Sports. Scherick had joined the fledgling ABC television network when he persuaded it to purchase Sports Programs, Inc., in exchange for the network acquiring shares in the company. Scherick had formed the company after he left CBS, when the network would not make him the head of its sports programming unit (choosing to instead appoint former baseball public relations agent William C. McPhail). Before ABC Sports even became a formal division of the network, Scherick and ABC programming chief Tom Moore pulled off many programming deals involving the most popular American sporting events.
While Scherick was not interested in "For Men Only," he recognized the talent that Arledge had. Arledge realized ABC was the organization he was looking to become part of. The lack of a formal organization would offer him the opportunity to claim real power when the network matured. With this, he signed on with Scherick as an assistant producer, with Arledge eventually ascending to a role as executive producer of its sports telecasts.
Several months before ABC began broadcasting NCAA college football games, Arledge sent Scherick a remarkable memo, filled with youthful exuberance, and television production concepts which sports broadcasts have adhered to since. Network broadcasts of sporting events had previously consisted of simple set-ups and focused on the game itself. In his memo, Arledge not only offered another way to broadcast the game to the sports fan, but recognized that television had to take fans to the game. In addition, he had the forethought to realize that the broadcasts needed to attract, and hold the attention of female viewers, as well as males. On September 17, 1960, the then-29-year-old Arledge put his vision into reality with ABC's first NCAA college football broadcast from Birmingham, Alabama, between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs which Alabama won, 21–6.
Despite the production values he brought to NCAA college football, Scherick wanted low-budget sports programming (as in inexpensive broadcasting rights) that could attract and retain an audience. He hit upon the idea of broadcasting track and field events sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. While Americans were not exactly fans of track and field events, Scherick figured that Americans understood games.
In January 1961, Scherick called Arledge into his office, and asked him to attend the annual AAU board of governors meeting. While he was shaking hands, Scherick said, "if the mood seemed right, might he cut a deal to broadcast AAU events on ABC?" It seemed like a tall assignment, however as Scherick said years later, "Roone was a gentile and I was not." Arledge came back with a deal for ABC to broadcast all AAU events for $50,000 per year. Next, Scherick and Arledge divided up their NCAA college football sponsor list. They then telephoned their sponsors and said in so many words, "Advertise on our new sports show coming up in April, or forget about buying commercials on NCAA college football this fall." The two persuaded enough sponsors to advertise on the broadcasts, though it took them to the last day of a deadline imposed by ABC's programming operations to do it.
Wide World of Sports – an anthology series featuring a different sporting event each broadcast, which premiered on the network on April 29, 1961 – suited Scherick's plans exactly. By exploiting the speed of jet transportation and flexibility of videotape, Scherick was able to undercut NBC and CBS's advantages in broadcasting live sporting events. In that era, with communications nowhere near as universal as they are in the present day, ABC was able to safely record events on videotape for later broadcast without worrying about an audience finding out the results. Arledge, his colleague Chuck Howard, and Jim McKay (who left CBS for this opportunity) made up the show on a week-by-week basis during the first year of Wide World's run. Arledge had a genius for the dramatic storyline that unfolded in the course of a game or event. McKay's honest curiosity and reporter's bluntness gave the show an emotional appeal which attracted viewers who might not have otherwise watched a sporting event. More importantly from Arledge's perspective, Wide World of Sports allowed him to demonstrate his ability as an administrator as well as a producer.
His ability to provide prime sports content was solidified in 1964, when ABC appointed Arledge as the vice president of ABC Sports. That same year, Scherick left the sports division to become ABC's vice president of programming – leaving Arledge as the top executive at ABC Sports, although he would not gain a formal title as president for four years.
In 1968, Arledge was formally appointed as president of ABC Sports. As the sports division's president for the succeeding 18 years, his job was his hobby; as he described it, it was good because he watched sports for work rather than leisure, but had a downside as he had no time left for leisure activities. He made sportsmen into stars, a trend he would later bring to the news division where he lured established anchors and correspondents such as David Brinkley and Diane Sawyer and paid unheard-of salaries, including the first million-dollar contract to Barbara Walters.
Arledge personally produced all ten of ABC's Olympic Games broadcasts, created the primetime Monday Night Football and coined the famous "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" tagline first used on Wide World of Sports – although ABC insiders of that era attribute the authorship to legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay. Over the next few years, the look of the network's sports telecasts became more intimate and entertaining as under Arledge, ABC introduced techniques such as slow motion replay, freeze frame, instant replay, split-screen, hand-held cameras, endzone cameras, underwater cameras and cameras on cranes.
As part of an agreement with the National Football League (which completed its merger with the American Football League that year), Monday Night Football debuted on ABC in September 1970, which served as the NFL's premier game of the week until 2006, when Sunday Night Football, which moved to NBC that year as part of a broadcast deal that in turn saw MNF move to ESPN, took over as the league's marquee game. Although it suffered a decline in ratings toward the end of its ABC run, the program was a hit for the network; according to ABC president Leonard Goldenson, Monday Night Football helped regularly score ABC an audience share of 15%–16%.
With the creation of Monday Night Football, Arledge not only anchored ABC's primetime programming, but created a national pastime. At first, nobody – including the affiliates and the advertisers – supported the idea of primetime football games at the beginning of the week. Arledge said regarding this skepticism, "But I thought there was something special about football, because there are so few games, and relatively few teams. Also, there is something about the look of a night game, with the lights bouncing off the helmets."
It was not only the lights that made watching Arledge-style football on ABC an event in itself. The games were transformed into events through the technical innovations envisioned by Arledge and through a new style of sportscaster embodied in Howard Cosell. ABC was the first network not to allow announcer approval by the league from which it was purchasing broadcast rights. Arledge said, "CBS had been the basic football network. They treated it like a religion and would almost never criticize it. But if you screwed up on Monday Night Football, Cosell would let everyone know about it." Arledge proudly pointed out that the program "changed the habits of the nation."
In 1977, Arledge's executive responsibilities at ABC were expanded, and he was made president of ABC News while remaining as head of ABC Sports.
The seeds of its eventual integration with ESPN occurred when ABC acquired a controlling interest in ESPN from Getty Oil in 1984. One year later, Capital Cities Communications purchased ABC for US$3.5 billion. Although some ESPN sportscasters such as John Saunders and Dick Vitale began to also appear on ABC Sports telecasts and shared some sports content (particularly the USFL), ESPN and ABC Sports continued to operate as separate entities.
After The Walt Disney Company bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Disney started to slowly integrate ESPN and ABC Sports. ESPN personalities like Chris Berman, Mike Tirico and Brad Nessler also began working on ABC Sports broadcasts. In 1998, ESPN adopted the graphics and music package used by ABC Sports for Monday Night Football for the network's Sunday Night Football broadcasts. ESPN graphics were also utilized on ABC's motorsports telecasts, including IndyCar and NASCAR events, during this period.
That same year, ESPN signed a five-year contract to televise National Hockey League (NHL) games, whereby the cable network essentially purchased time on ABC to air selected NHL games on the broadcast network. This was noted in copyright tags at the conclusion of the telecasts (i.e., "The preceding program has been paid for by ESPN, Inc."). ESPN later signed a similar television rights contract with the National Basketball Association in 2002, allowing it to produce and broadcast NBA games on ABC under a similar time buy on the broadcast network.
Between 2000 and 2002, many ABC Sports programs utilized graphics almost identical to those used on ESPN. One notable exception was Monday Night Football, which switched to a different graphics package as part of then-new producer Don Ohlmeyer's attempt to provide some renewed vigor into those telecasts. Subsequently, ABC changed graphics packages each fall from 2002 to 2005, while ESPN's basically remained consistent.
Meanwhile, Disney continued to consolidate the corporate structure of ESPN and ABC Sports. Steve Bornstein was given the title as president of both ESPN and ABC Sports in 1996. The sales, marketing, and production departments of both divisions were eventually merged. As a result, ESPN uses some union production crews for its coverage (as the networks normally do), whereas non-union personnel are quite common in cable sports broadcasting.
In August 2006, it was announced that ABC Sports would be totally integrated into ESPN, incorporating the graphics and music used by the cable channel and its related television properties, and production staff. The brand integration does not directly affect whether the ESPN cable channel or ABC carries a particular event, as in most cases this is governed by contracts with the applicable league or organization. Perhaps confusingly, this means that some events are broadcast with ESPN branding during ABC coverage, even though another channel owns the cable rights. For example, TNT held the cable television rights to the British Open from 2003 to 2009 (with ABC carrying the tournament's weekend coverage); in addition, since 2009, ABC has shared the rights to IndyCar Series with NBCSN. IndyCar fans who have criticized ESPN on ABC's race broadcasts have used "Always Bad Coverage" as a derisive backronym pertaining to the quality of the telecasts. On the other hand, ESPN airs Major League Baseball games; however, ABC does not as Fox holds the broadcast television rights to the league's game telecasts.
The last live sporting event televised under the ABC Sports banner was the United States Championship Game in the Little League World Series on Saturday, August 26, 2006 (ABC was slated to carry the Little League World Series Championship Game on Sunday, August 27, however rain forced the postponement of the game to the following Monday, August 28, with that game subsequently airing on ESPN2). The changeover took effect the following weekend to coincide with the start of the college football season, with NBA, IndyCar Series and NASCAR coverage eventually following suit.
However, ABC used a separate graphics package (incorporating the network's own logo) during its coverage of the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which were similar to the older-styled ESPN graphics but with a yellow base. In 2008, though, it utilized the newer yellow and red ESPN graphics which had been used on other recent telecasts, but with the ABC logo. These graphics were used through 2010. In 2011, the Bee was moved off of network TV and the telecast began to be produced by Scripps Television, which uses its own graphics.
As ESPN has signed new contracts with various conferences to produce college football coverage, the network has begun branding its coverage of select conferences to which it has rights. This branding was first seen on SEC broadcasts in 2011, which became the "SEC on ESPN". ACC broadcasts followed suit in 2012 becoming the "ACC on ESPN". Despite the fact that ACC games also air on ABC, the games remain branded as the "ACC on ESPN" regardless of network. In 2016, a new contract brought conference branding to Big Ten telecasts as well, which air on both ESPN and ABC. While Big Ten games that air on ESPN cable channels are branded as the "Big Ten on ESPN", games airing on ABC are now branded as the "Big Ten on ABC". While the program is still officially part of ESPN College Football which is reflected when talent appears on screen, the Big Ten on ABC logo and branding is used for intro, program IDs, and replay wipes. This is the first time any regularly scheduled sporting event outside of the National Spelling Bee has carried any ABC branding since 2006.
Also starting with Saturday Primetime in 2017, live NBA game action no longer shows the ESPN identification on screen. Previously under ESPN on ABC (since 2006-07), the ESPN logo was part of the score banner, while the ABC logo was separately floating on the right side of the screen, remaining on screen during replays. The version of the new 2016-17 graphics package used on ABC replaces the ESPN logo in the score banner with several stars, while the ABC logo (still constantly on screen) anchors the right side of the banner; however for the 2017–18 season, the ESPN logo was reintroduced onto a revised version of the score banner with the ABC logo still located to the right. In addition, commercial transitions for ABC games now contain the ABC logo. It is the first time NBA games on ABC don't have ESPN identification during live action since the 2006 NBA Finals.
Despite the rebranding, ABC Sports continues to exist, at least nominally, as a division of the ABC network. One indication of this was the retention of George Bodenheimer's official title as "President, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports" even after the rebranding – the second part of the title would presumably be unnecessary if ESPN had fully absorbed ABC's sports operations – though following Bodenheimer's retirement and the subsequent appointment of John Skipper at the end of 2011, the title was shortened to "President, ESPN Inc." In addition, ABC itself maintains the copyright over many of the ESPN-branded broadcasts, if they are not contractually assigned to the applicable league or organizer, suggesting that ESPN has merely "loaned" usage of its brand name, staff and infrastructure to ABC, rather than having acquired ABC Sports outright.
This is likely a minor technicality stemming from ESPN being technically a joint venture between Disney (which owns an 80% controlling interest) and the Hearst Corporation (which owns the remaining 20%). Disney has long exercised operational control of the network, while Hearst is believed to be more of a silent partner rather than an active participant in ESPN's management. However, this relationship does mean that Hearst's ABC-affiliated stations – such as WCVB-TV in Boston; WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire; WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh; WISN-TV in Milwaukee; WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach; and KMBC-TV in Kansas City – have right of first refusal to local simulcasts of ESPN-televised Monday Night Football games involving home-market teams, which are very rarely waived to other stations within their markets. Equally, other Hearst-owned stations such as NBC affiliates WBAL-TV in Baltimore, and WDSU-TV in New Orleans have been able to air NFL games from ESPN for the same reason (independent station WMOR-TV in the Tampa market is also eligible to air these games, but rarely if ever does so).
Under NFL broadcasting rules, the league's cable-televised games must be simulcast on broadcast television in the local markets of the teams playing in the broadcast, though the game is not permitted to air in the home team's market if tickets do not sell out 72 hours before kickoff – games that are not sold out must be blacked out in the market of origin (due to the league's March 2015 decision to suspend its blackout policies, all NFL games televised by ESPN during the 2015 season are allowed to air on broadcast television in the originating market of the game and the home markets of both participating teams). Similar rules and rights were previously in place for ESPN-televised Major League Baseball playoff games, except in that non-sellout games were not blacked out (Major League Baseball does not black out games based on attendance, but rather to protect local broadcasters). ABC owned-and-operated stations also have right of first refusal for NFL (and previously Major League Baseball postseason) simulcasts from ESPN, though in recent years the stations have passed on airing the game telecasts in favor of carrying ABC's Monday night schedule, which includes the popular reality competition series Dancing with the Stars.
ESPN and The Walt Disney Company have been criticized for decreasing the amount of sports programming televised on ABC. Several ABC affiliates have also voiced opposition regarding the increasing migration of live sporting event telecasts from ABC to ESPN.
An example was in regards to NASCAR race broadcasts: from 2007 to 2009, ABC aired all of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races, along with one other race. From 2010 to 2014, only three Sprint Cup races and one Chase race (Charlotte) were shown on ABC, to the outrage of many NASCAR fans and sponsors. Several other events such as college football's Rose Bowl and Capital One Bowl games, and the British Open golf tournament have also been transferred from ABC to ESPN (although the Capital One Bowl would return to ABC in 2013). This, however, is not entirely the fault of ESPN, as ABC in general has attracted a primarily female viewership in recent years, with sports largely attracting a male-dominated –though not exclusive – audience.
The decrease in sports events televised by ABC has resulted in the network having a very inconsistent weekend afternoon sports schedule similar – if not somewhat equal – to Fox in previous years (and to some extent, to this day,[when?] even with the expansion of sports coverage on Fox since 2011); ESPN-produced sports specials (aired as part of the 30 for 30 and E:60 anthology series) and/or more recently, figure skating and gymnastics specials supplied by Disson Skating (a subsidiary of independent production company Disson Sports & Entertainment) as well as syndicated programs or infomercials scheduled by the network's owned-and-operated stations and affiliates fill the weekend afternoon schedule on days when the network is not scheduled to air a sporting event; until 2014, ABC-supplied rerun blocks of certain prime-time network shows and occasional theatrical film telecasts have also filled the schedule on weekend afternoons without a scheduled sports event. As a consequence of this, ABC turned over an hour of its then-existing two-hour Sunday afternoon block (from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time) to its affiliates on June 21, 2015, reducing its Sunday schedule on weeks without major sporting events to one hour; the 5:00 p.m. (Eastern) hour that was retained is usually reserved for rebroadcasts of ESPN sports documentaries. However, as of January 2016, ABC rescinded the remaining hour of its Sunday afternoon schedule (5:00–6:00 PM Eastern Time) back to its affiliates thus leaving ABC without a Sunday afternoon block (save for major sporting events). This exclusively relegated ABC's sports schedule to Saturday afternoons (and by extension, ABC's non-news weekend schedule to 3:00 to 6:00 PM and 8:00 to 11:00 PM on Saturdays and 7:00 to 11:00 PM on Sundays). ABC's in-house network-programmed Sunday schedule not counting news-related programming as a result of this is now exclusively relegated to its four-hour prime time block (from 7:00 to 11:00 PM).
In the past few years,[when?] ABC gave up several lucrative sports contracts. It gave up the rights for the American Le Mans Series in 2013 when it merged with the Rolex Grand Am Series to form the Weathertech Sportscar Championship and subsequently moved to Fox. It also ended its FIFA coverage with rights also being transferred to Fox one year later in 2014. It then lost the NASCAR broadcast rights the same year with the rights being picked up by NBC. Also, it phased out the last of its college basketball coverage also in the same year (the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament) with the tournament being moved to the ESPN cable networks. It also gave up its highlights show relating to the British Open golf tournament one year later. In 2016, ABC ended its regularly scheduled doubleheaders for its NBA Sunday Showcase, opting to opening up a window for Saturday night games and leaving single games on Sunday afternoons in most cases. In addition, ABC discontinued airing Grantland-related programming when the brand shut down operations in October.
Unlike other ESPN networks, ESPN on ABC events were still produced with graphics and a BottomLine framed for the 4:3 aspect ratio – as opposed to the 16:9 formatting used for the ticker and graphics on the ESPN family of networks, as well as CBS, Fox, and NBC's sports telecasts. However, beginning during the 2016 Little League World Series in August 2016, ABC migrated to a 16:9 presentation for ESPN on ABC broadcasts, similar to the ESPN cable networks, as ABC's entertainment programming also switched to a 16:9 presentation in September.
Until 2001, ABC Sports programs ended with the line "This has been a presentation of ABC Sports. Recognized around the world as the leader in sports television." Beginning in 2001, ABC changed the tagline to "ABC Sports: Championship Television," in regards to ABC's sports lineup (which included the BCS Championship Game, the Stanley Cup Finals, rights to Super Bowl coverage, and would later include the NBA Finals). Ever since the ESPN on ABC integration, the ESPN tagline – "This has been a presentation of ESPN, The Worldwide Leader in Sports" – has been used at the end of each broadcast on ABC.