The Atlantic has a really good piece today that explores how ESPN became the most "valuable media property in the United States." Two things, really: 1.) John Skipper, ESPN's president, started gobbling up live rights for traditional sports back in 2005, moving against the tide of airport-bookstore business wisdom. 2.) The blockbuster model.
The Atlantic's Derek Thompson explains:
One of the loudest criticisms of ESPN is that its aggressively mainstream approach creates a sycophantic celebrity culture built around the biggest stars and juiciest plots, from the agonies of the L.A. Lakers, to the scandals of Tiger Woods, to the postmodern dramedy of Tim Tebow.
“It’s not different from People realizing that there are only five celebrities who really sell [magazines], so why put anyone else on the cover?” she said. “It’s Hollywood making more movies with Marvel characters. It reduced the risk, and it works.” The company’s core strengths stem from a superstar-first approach to sports news. Essentially, ESPN is in the business of building athletes into superheroes, because, like Walt Disney Pictures, it is in the business of building blockbusters.
If this sounds flimsy, read the piece. It's nicely laid out. And that's it: LeBron is Spider-Man. That's the business.