ESPN Classic is an American multinational pay television network that is owned by ESPN Inc., a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company (which owns a controlling 80% stake) and Hearst Communications (which owns 20%).
The channel was originally launched as the Classic Sports Network in 1995, and was acquired by ESPN in 1997. The network originally focused on carrying classic sporting events, other programs and documentaries, and live specials (such as the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony) focusing on sports history.
By the 2010s, due to the increasing number of sport-, league-, and college conference-specific networks that had assumed rights to the archive content that was historically aired by ESPN Classic, a larger amount of programming was devoted to archive content whose rights were owned by ESPN outright, reruns of recent events from ESPN's networks, as well as ESPN original documentaries, and overflow coverage of events from other ESPN networks.
In 2014, ESPN began to phase out ESPN Classic as a linear service, and transition it to a branded video on-demand offering. A number of major providers, such as AT&T, Altice USA, Comcast, and Verizon Fios dropped ESPN Classic in the years that followed. Due to this change in format, ESPNews and ESPN's digital platforms have supplanted its role as an overflow service.
The channel was launched on May 6, 1995 as the Classic Sports Network. The Post-Newsweek Cable headend in Ada, Oklahoma, with 6,500 subscribers, was the first cable system to carry the network. CSN was founded by Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg (son of Hank Greenberg), both of whom went on to launch College Sports Television (now CBS Sports Network)), with partial funding from Allen & Company. Initial programming for Classic Sports Network came in large part from Tom Ficara and his TVS Television Network, who licensed 300 classic sports events from its TVS catalog. In 1997, ESPN, Inc. purchased Classic Sports Network for $175 million and relaunched it as ESPN Classic the following year. Throughout its history, dating back to its existence as Classic Sports Network, the channel's logo has incorporated a stylized silhouette intending to resemble a boxer.
In February 2008, The Wall Street Journal reported that NFL Network chief executive Steve Bornstein had been in "high-level discussions" with NFL and Disney executives including CEO Robert Iger and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. An analyst quoted in the report suggested a merger of NFL Network with ESPN Classic due to the latter's wide distribution on expanded basic cable tiers.
On August 4, 2009, Dish Network filed a federal lawsuit against ESPN for $1 million, alleging that the network breached its contract by not extending the same contractual term of carriage that ESPN provided to Comcast and DirecTV for ESPNU and ESPN Classic. The lawsuit claimed that ESPN violated the "Most Favored Nations" clause. The following day, representatives for ESPN announced in a press release that the company would fight the lawsuit, stating: "We have repeatedly advised Dish that we are in full compliance with our agreement and have offered them a distribution opportunity with respect to ESPNU and ESPN Classic consistent with the rest of the industry. We will not renegotiate settled contracts and will vigorously defend this legal action, the apparent sole purpose of which is to get a better deal."
On October 1, 2014, ESPN Classic began a gradual transition into a video on demand-only service, with Dish Network becoming the first to discontinue carriage of the linear channel and carry it as a VOD service on that date. Other providers will follow suit on an unknown timetable. In December 2017, cable companies Comcast Xfinity and Altice USA dropped the ESPN Classic linear channel from their TV lineups. On February 4, 2019, Verizon FiOS removed the channel from the lineup. Spectrum, as part of their newest Disney agreement approved in August 2019, began dropping ESPN Classic from their systems on October 15, 2019. On November 4, 2019, Cox Communications removed it from their lineup. On November 30, 2019, DirecTV and AT&T U-verse removed the network from their lineup as the contract for carriage expired without renewal after resolving a dispute earlier in the year with The Walt Disney Company.
In 2008, as part of a cost-cutting move, ESPN Classic's schedule began to become largely composed of ESPN original programming, highlighting sports such as poker, bowling and boxing, with a decreased emphasis on rebroadcasts of classic major league sporting events (a practice which has, however, been adopted by sports networks associated with a league or individual teams, among other channels). Since 2005, the channel has also frequently broadcast overflow programming from the main ESPN channels, and reruns of ESPN-produced telecasts of recent sporting events that the network has declared an "Instant Classic".
ESPN Classic is the only U.S.-based ESPN network (and one of two Disney-owned cable channels in the U.S., alongside Freeform) that airs infomercials, which run daily from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time. As of May 20, 2012, ESPN Classic is the only remaining ESPN-branded network and the only cable channel owned by Disney that does not operate a high definition simulcast feed, due to the majority of its content being vintage footage produced before the existence of high-definition television; outside of specific programming available in widescreen, the channel airs all programming in the 4:3 aspect ratio, and it uses the safe area-restricted "BottomLine" sports news ticker previously used by ESPN on ABC broadcasts on sister network ABC until August 2016 when it switched to a 16:9 presentation. It is also the only ESPN network that is not available on the network's WatchESPN app for mobile devices as a live feed, likely due to licensing restrictions for the archival content aired on the channel; the few live events it does carry are otherwise listed as provided by ESPN3 on WatchESPN. The network's VOD component was launched for existing subscribers using Apple TV and Roku devices through WatchESPN on April 28, 2016, likely under a modified license to allow content distribution via that platform.
Older sports programming from the 1990s and earlier has moved almost entirely to league-specific networks including the Big Ten Network, MLB Network, NBA TV, NHL Network, NFL Network, Tennis Channel, or various team-owned regional sports networks. Likewise, archival games from the Southeastern Conference and the University of Texas Longhorns have respectively moved to the ESPN-operated SEC Network and Longhorn Network.
By 2011, ESPN Classic drifted toward a mix of reruns of entertainment series in prime time, and movies (mostly ESPN Films productions and documentaries such as the 30 for 30 series) making up the majority of the channel's weekend schedule. The majority of "classic" sports events in ESPN Classic's program library today are college football and basketball games from the past decade which have not been claimed by conference networks, along with boxing, professional wrestling and bowling events whose copyrights are maintained solely by ESPN.
Broadcasting of live events
The first live event to be shown on ESPN Classic was the implosion of the Kingdome in Seattle in March 2000. By 2005 however, ESPN Classic began to broadcast more live sporting events, such as special "ESPN Classic Live" telecasts of college basketball games that featured veteran commentators and older-styled graphics. Around this time, ESPN Classic also began to be used as an overflow channel for programming that could not be shown on ESPN or ESPN2 due to scheduling conflicts (these have since been moved to ESPNews); these have included additional college football and basketball games, the "ESPN Classic Game of the Week" (a Sunday rebroadcast of an ESPN/ABC-televised college football game from the previous Saturday), IRL events, live coverage of selected HBCU games (especially since the term "classic" is used for special neutral-site HBCU games), and tape-delayed UEFA Champions League soccer games.
Examples of live sporting events broadcast by ESPN Classic due to scheduling overruns on ESPN or ESPN2, include the following from the third quarter of 2007:
- A WNBA basketball game between the Sacramento Monarchs and the Seattle Storm on July 31 (originally aired on ESPN2, it was moved due to a game in which Barry Bonds attempted to tie the all-time Major League Baseball home run record and ESPN's airing of an episode of The Bronx is Burning). In addition, Game 1 of the WNBA Western Conference Final between the Phoenix Mercury and the San Antonio Silver Stars on August 30 aired on ESPN Classic, as ESPN2 aired a college football game between the University of Tulsa and University of Louisiana at Monroe (as a sidebar, the WNBA did not want the game to start at the originally-scheduled time of 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time as it was being played in San Antonio, Texas, where it would have aired at 9:00 p.m. local time; had the game started at 10:00 p.m., it would have aired on ESPN2).
- The Firestone Indy 400 IndyCar race on August 5 (which was moved from ESPN2 due to a rain delay)
- Two preliminary round games of USA Basketball in the FIBA Americas Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 22 and 23 and a semifinal between the US and Puerto Rico on September 1 (ESPN2 had obtained rights, but had other program commitments)
- The third quarter of the WNBA playoff game between the Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun on August 23, 2007. This was also scheduled for ESPN2, but it was preceded by a Little League World Series game. After an entire half went untelevised, ESPN Classic decided to pull a rebroadcast of a Major League Soccer game in favor of replacing ESPN2 as Chinese Taipei and Japan continued a game that went very long by Little League standards. Japan would win the game in 10 innings, and ESPN2 picked up the coverage in the fourth quarter. Ironically, the WNBA game would set a record for longest playoff game as the Sun defeated the Fever in triple overtime.
- Two Champ Car World Series races in September and one in October.
Since then, these games or events have been shown live on ESPN Classic:
- The 2008 Indy Japan 300, which was won by Danica Patrick (the first female winner of an IndyCar event).
- The entirety of the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series Lipton Tea 250. The race was simulcast with Speed and ESPN360.com, as ESPN2 was obligated to an NBA playoff game during the scheduled time of the race (ESPN2 would later join the race in progress and air it in its entirety on tape delay). In addition, the network had planned to air the 2008 Sharpie Mini 300, picking up the coverage from ABC, had it continued; however, NASCAR called the race before its conclusion (171 out of 300 laps) because of rain. Clint Bowyer was declared the race winner.
- The College World Series game between the University of Georgia and Fresno State University on June 22, 2008, as there were a couple of days of rain-outs, and due to a baseball game being broadcast on ESPN, and a drag racing event being televised on ESPN2, the game was forced to air on ESPN Classic.
- The following World Cup qualifying matches: United States and Cuba on October 11, 2008, the November 19 match between the United States and Guatemala, and the USA-El Salvador match on September 5, 2009.
- The opening five minutes of the Winter X Games, on January 30, 2010. The event aired on ESPN2 a few minutes later, due to a runover of an Indiana-Illinois basketball game.
- The first hour of a college baseball Super Regional division series game between Texas A&M and Florida State University on June 11, 2011, due to a rain delay of a game between the University of Virginia and University of California-Irvine.
ESPN Classic also served as the official broadcaster of the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony until 2009 (when it moved to MLB Network). On August 25, 2012, ESPN Classic aired an Atlantic League baseball game between the Sugar Land Skeeters and Bridgeport Bluefish; the game featured Major League Baseball legend Roger Clemens as a starting pitcher for the Skeeters. (In 2014, ESPN acquired permanent rights to Skeeters games, but moved the games to its online portal, ESPN3.)
While not a live event, in 2008 ESPN Classic also notably broadcast a previously untelevised college basketball game played on January 23, 2008 between Baylor and Texas A&M, which Baylor won 116-110 in five overtimes. Due to an unlikely set of circumstances, the actual game, held at Reed Arena on the A&M campus, was never televised. ESPN Classic used the feeds from the arena's in-house cameras, normally used to allow highlights to be displayed on Jumbotron screens, and the original play-by-play and commentary from A&M's radio broadcasters to create a complete telecast. The telecast aired on March 5, 2008 on ESPN Classic before the rematch between the two teams at Baylor aired on ESPN2.
ESPN Classic is also used for ESPN's multiple-perspective telecasts under the Full Circle and Megacast brands; in these cases, ESPN Classic carried the "Sounds of the Game" feed, which is broadcast without commentary.
Fan interactive specials
Beginning in the mid-2000s, ESPN Classic aired a series of specials counting down the greatest teams in the history of certain sports, as determined by fan balloting. In March 2006, the 1981-82 North Carolina Tar Heels won the fan poll for best-ever college basketball team, in October 2006, the 1927 New York Yankees won for best Major League Baseball team, and in December 2006, the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers won the fan poll for best-ever college football team.
Each of these programs features expert analysis and live interactive voting online at ESPN.com, with the first votes being cast one week before the scheduled live show and continued balloting online and via text messaging until the end of the show.
Cessation of original programming
On January 14, 2007, Deadspin.com reported that ESPN Classic would no longer develop or air original programming. It was not immediately clear what would replace such programs, however, it was assumed that shows that were already produced, but not yet aired, would be broadcast at least for a few more months.
Over the next few months, new episodes of Missing Link, Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame and Ringside aired as scheduled. However, Missing Link was cancelled in June 2007, at which time production was also halted on the other two programs.
List of programs broadcast by ESPN Classic
- 30 for 30
- Bassmaster Elite Series
- Battle of the Network Stars
- ESPN First Take Classics (2014–present)
- Friday Night Lights
- Global Supercard Wrestling (originally aired on ESPN from 1991–1994)
- Home Run Derby
- Nine for IX
- The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... (2009–present; originally aired on ESPN2 from 2005–2007)
- Who's No. 1?
- 2 Minute Drill
- 60 Minutes on Classic (2004–2008, in reruns)
- American Gladiators (2007–2009, originally aired in syndication from 1989–1996)
- AWA Championship Wrestling (originally aired on ESPN from 1986–1990)
- The American Sportsman
- Bay City Blues
- Celebrity Bowling (2010)
- Cheap Seats
- Classic Now (2005–2006)
- Classic NHRA
- ESPN Classic Remembers
- Fantasy Insider
- Greatest Sports Legends
- Instant Classic
- Jim Rome Classics
- The Joe Namath Show (2009–14)
- Jack LaLanne
- Long Way Down
- Missing Link (2007)
- NCAA on Campus (formerly on Fox Sports Net, later on CBS College Sports)
- NFL Films (currently on NFL Network)
- Reel Classics
- Ringside (2005–present)
- Schaap One-on-One
- SportsCenter of the Decade
- Sports Challenge
- Sunday Morning Classics
- Stump the Schwab
- The Way It Was (2004–2006; 2009)
- The White Shadow
- This Week In Baseball
- UWF Wrestling (2008, originally aired on ESPN2 in 1995)
- Woodie's World
- Wide World of Sports
In pop culture
ESPN Classic has been parodied in a recurring series of Saturday Night Live skits. The sketches depict archived broadcasts of obscure women's sports events from the 1980s such as bowling, weightlifting and curling. The announcers, Pete Twinkle and Greg Stink (played by Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte, respectively), consistently know nothing about the sport, and instead focus on promoting the sponsors, which are always women's hygiene products.
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