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Volume 21 No. 1
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ESPN sees a winner in Special Olympics

ESPN expanded coverage of the Special Olympics at the Los Angeles 2015 World Games.
For three decades, ESPN saw its work with the Special Olympics as a charitable act. Now it’s business, too.

On Saturday, ABC broadcast the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics Winter World Games live from Austria, and both ESPN and ABC will air highlight shows through the closing ceremony on Sunday.

It’s the first commitment under a three-year rights deal ESPN signed with Special Olympics International in October, which followed a successful experiment to expand coverage at the Los Angeles 2015 World Games.
Terms aren’t public, but in the new relationship, ESPN views the Special Olympics as a property expected to provide a financial and strategic return like any other sport it airs.

“The summer of 2015 really transformed our relationship with the Special Olympics from one of corporate citizenship to a business one,” said Russell Wolff, ESPN International executive vice president.

Wolff said ESPN has featured Special Olympians in one-off segments on “SportsCenter” and other platforms for years, but thought it had more potential, based in part on the success of the Invictus Games and the Paralympics.

“The concept of athletes with differences was starting to resonate in our shop, and we thought expanding that to athletes with intellectual disabilities was a natural next step,” he said. “And I think we found we were right.”

Along with broadcasting on ESPN and ABC, ESPN is a distributor of international coverage to 190 territories, syndicating to TSN in Canada, Sony ESPN in India and Tencent digital platforms in China, among others.

In 2015, the opening ceremony drew 525,000 viewers to ESPN, about the same as a Feb. 28 Indiana-Purdue men’s basketball game, with viewership ranging from 244,000 to 295,000 for highlight shows. ABC aired two taped shows in 2015 that drew in the low 500,000s.

Wolff says the coverage has brought corporate partners Toyota and Bank of America on board, and encouraged ABC affiliates to promote local send-off parties for athletes. ESPN also sees the natural audience for these events as especially passionate compared with most sports fans, echoing thoughts of Paralympic partners.

Special Olympics International CEO Mary Davis said ESPN’s commitment has given the organization new assets to promote while negotiating with sponsors, and has helped the search for new fans.

But also, she said, ESPN is advancing the nonprofit’s core mission merely by presenting the Games as an event like any other sport. ESPN has again hired retired Special Olympian Dustin Plunkett to join the broadcast crew with Robin Roberts and Kevin Negandhi.

“By having Dustin present alongside ESPN presenters, it shows the world that, yes, these are people who are as capable as anyone else,” Davis said. “You give them the platform, the necessary training, and they can achieve a heck of a lot.”