Keith Olbermann vividly remembers the day in April 1996 when sports television changed. Worldwide media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Liberty Media announced their plan to acquire a joint stake in nine regional sports cable networks, establish an alliance among those networks and give them a national presence--in direct competition with Olbermann's employer at the time, national cable sports pioneer ESPN.

"I just went, 'Holy Cow! This is the one way [ESPN's] monopoly will be threatened,' " Olbermann recalled. "Who could guess that in three years it's gotten this far, and that I'd be a part of it?"

Yes, who could have imagined Olbermann's face becoming the most prominent part of ads in stadiums and arenas across the country--and therefore on television screens across the country--that illustrate an unprecedented corporate battle for control of the American sports landscape?

In one corner are Olbermann's new employer, Fox Sports Net, and its corporate parent--Murdoch's News Corp., which has bought out Liberty Media's interest in the sports networks. Murdoch has ownership of, or an interest in, among other entities, the Fox network, the FX cable channel, the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Knicks, New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden and the new Staples Center in Los Angeles.

In another corner are ESPN, its various publishing and radio interests, and their corporate parent--the Walt Disney Co. Disney also controls ABC, the Anaheim Angels, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Disney's Wide World of Sports resort complex in Florida and the GO Network, an Internet service.

And in still a third corner is Time Warner Inc., which merely controls Sports Illustrated magazine, a trio of cable TV channels well known to sports viewers (TBS, TNT and CNN), as well as the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks and the NHL's expansion Atlanta Thrashers.

However, the competition among these three omnipresent sports titans occurs most publicly--and perhaps most bitterly--over the cablewaves. Every weeknight and weekend day, it begins with the day's first tip-off, pitch, faceoff, kickoff, green flag, serve or tee shot and it doesn't end until the last highlight has been shown.

While ESPN and its signature news and information show, "SportsCenter," remain the strongest sports brand names on network or cable television, Fox officials and employees are convinced that it is only a matter of time before their cable alliance will challenge for supremacy.

ESPN relies on a potent lineup of nationally televised major sports events, including contracts with the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, the NCAA, nearly every major collegiate conference in the country, the PGA Tour and many others. Fox Sports Net's focus remains on its various regional channels--now 22 strong, including Bethesda-based Home Team Sports--showing local professional and college teams to their respective audiences, with dollops of programming from fellow channels to fill in the blanks when the hometown teams are not in action.

But Fox also is thinking national. Their approach "is disguised as a regional approach," said Brian Schecter, a sports analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, a research firm. "They are also, as much as they can, coupling those [regional services] together as a national service. Their advertising [solicitation material] is based on that principle."

ESPN and Fox Sports Net do butt heads most directly in one area--their nightly sports news shows. And in the ratings for those shows, ESPN is way ahead of both Fox Sports Net and the CNN/Sports Illustrated show aired on CNN at 11 p.m. (CNN/SI is considered a factor among the 11 o'clock sports shows because "Sports Tonight" is shown on CNN and CNN/SI; otherwise, CNN/SI does not have the same type of programming or the reach of ESPN and Fox Sports Net.)

According to the Neilsen ratings for July, Fox Sports Net trailed "SportsCenter" in households watching during the 11 p.m. hour by a nearly 5-to-1 margin, and lagged behind CNN/SI's "Sports Tonight" by close to a 2-to-1 margin. However, Fox Sports Net has its sights set on overtaking "SportsCenter" in popularity, and is not the least bit shy about announcing its intentions.

Fox Sports Net has a two-hour show, which begins at 10 p.m., and Fox officials insist that when Nielsen ratings look at the full two hours, the difference in the number of households watching Fox Sports Net and ESPN is much smaller. A Fox spokesman said that through Aug. 2, the network was averaging 509,000 households over the two hours this year.

ESPN counters by saying the 11 p.m. hour is all that matters to them, and they are drubbing all comers head-to-head for those 60 minutes.

Industry observers say ESPN remains the leader, but Fox Sports Net is a legitimate player--and growing.

Said Neal Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports who now has a TV consulting firm: "In terms of national sports news and info, ESPN will continue to be perceived as the market leader. However, Fox is steadily gaining ground as a supplier of news and information."

And Olbermann has no problem with the notion of ESPN as a Goliath--especially when he has a slingshot handy.

"ESPN's approach is the equivalent of baseball teams throwing their gloves out on the field and scaring the other team to death," said Olbermann, whose enmity for his former employer has diminished with time but still is fairly obvious. "It's the 'We have the tradition' arrogance that eventually will drive them under. I used to hear that all the time when I was there, and it drove me nuts.

"Being a monopoly all this time, you have a sense of them being the world's largest passenger ship that never sees the other ship until it's too late and they don't know how to swim in a competitive situation. Rather than authenticate us, they barely acknowledge that we exist. I've figured out that the 'E' in 'ESPN' stands for 'entitlement.' "

Some ESPN executives also have been throwing darts at the competition. ABC/ESPN President Steve Bornstein told HBO last year: "I kind of look at Fox as a big mosquito." Bornstein declined through a spokesman to comment for this story.

Fox Sports President David Hill insisted that Bornstein's "mosquito" comment didn't bother him much. "I'm never offended by anything Steve says," he said. "He's a good friend. We have lunch and dinner together.

"But I absolutely think we can rival them. . . . Look at it like your newspaper. If you've got a reporter in every precinct of the city, you're getting more than just having a guy sitting in the main station. We're everywhere."

Even on the sails of an America's Cup boat, Young America II, which was sponsored by Fox Sports Net. But ESPN threatened to walk away from covering the yacht race rather than be forced to show pictures of one of the Cup's leading contenders--and particularly its logoed sails--on ESPN until Murdoch decided to withdraw the sponsorship earlier this year.

"I rather thought it was an ingenious marketing move myself," Hill said. "Guess they didn't like it much, did they?"

ESPN officials insist they are taking Fox Sports Net seriously, even if some of them believe it is a somewhat flawed concept to expect viewers to stay tuned to a national sports news show just because they have just finished watching their local team. With ESPN establishing its dominance in the sports news field over a period of 20 years, they believe that even viewers who watch a game on a Fox Sports Net affiliate will click over to "SportsCenter" promptly at 11 p.m., almost from habit.

"You have to pay attention to the competition. We pay attention to everybody," said John Walsh, the executive editor for all of ESPN's news shows and a man properly credited with making "SportsCenter" the network's premier franchise. "On the other hand, we've spent 20 years building up all the aspects we have now, including the news gathering. We've established the standard and we're always looking to improve.

"Our attitude is, don't miss anything and stay on top of everything. I believe we have the best reporters and the best anchors who give people the information they want in the most entertaining way. Do we make a mistake once in a while? Of course. What [ESPN reporters] Chris Mortensen, Peter Gammons and David Aldridge are on top of is unbelievable. I don't see anyone out there who's equal to any of them on covering an individual sport.

"I don't see any of [ESPN's cable competitors] doing better features than we have. Does someone else occasionally do a nice piece? Sure. But not on a consistent day-in, day-out basis. The idea that Fox, in particular, is also about PR and promotion only stokes our competitive fires."

Most of Fox's reporters in the field are relatively unknown nationally. But Fox utilizes many of the same people who broadcast its local games to provide stories for the network news and highlights show. Some do play-by-play, others are analysts or sideline reporters, but they all know their respective teams. And Fox executives believe they have the potential to break more stories than ESPN's national reporters if only because they are always on the scene.

The splashy hiring of Olbermann, with Fox paying the remainder of his $1 million contract to MSNBC, then spending about $5 million to promote his arrival (and, to a lesser extent, the addition of the more reserved Chris Myers, a longtime ESPN fixture), clearly gave Fox a publicity boost. Still, ESPN officials sniff that neither man had much of an impact on ratings for "SportsCenter." One ESPN executive said Olbermann's presence on the show occasionally resulted in a lower rating because some viewers simply didn't get his droll, heavy-on-the-sarcasm act, even if it was brilliantly written and impeccably performed.

Still, Fox Sports Net executives say their regional approach ultimately will allow them to compete on equal footing with ESPN, which still emphasizes national events with games of the week in hockey and basketball and a Sunday night national NFL telecast. Fox Sports Net affiliates own the broadcast rights for 19 NHL teams, 26 NBA teams and 24 Major League Baseball teams, including the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Baltimore Orioles.

"People want their home teams above anything else," said Arthur Smith, Fox Sports Net's executive vice president for programming and production. "The ratings definitely back us up. We're getting far better ratings on an Orioles game on HTS than any national game ESPN throws against it. . . . If you have a strong local lead-in and can present a strong highlights show afterward, you've got a real good chance of keeping them right where they are. We see that happening now, and it will only continue to keep happening."

Fox Sports Net does produce a national baseball game of the week on Thursday nights, but as HTS General Manager Jody Shapiro pointed out: "They'll also do one on the West Coast, which allows us to show the Orioles game, then give our viewers a national telecast, too. It certainly works in a city like Washington where so many people come from around the country. A Dodgers-Giants game is a good product in this market."

Fox Sports Net's nightly news show also can be tailored to individual regions, so a Wizards fan who missed the game on HTS can watch a full package of highlights during the 10 o'clock show that probably will have the story aired during the first 10 minutes of the telecast, possibly as the lead.

"When you hire someone like an Olbermann or a Chris Myers," Shapiro said, "the message you're sending to the sports fan is that you're going to be a great source of information and have a fun, entertaining show. Our ratings have definitely grown, and I can't see how that won't continue."

Olbermann is equally optimistic.

"We've got a five-hour open bar here, so come in when you're ready," he said. "There's also a much different attitude here toward the people who are putting these shows together. I just came from a meeting where they had all the production assistants, all the kids doing the grunt work, and had a ceremony for best highlights, including cash awards and trophies.

"At ESPN, where we made $60 million on an 11 o'clock show, they froze hiring and had temporary [production assistants]. Here, there seems to be an attitude that if you treat people well, they just might even work harder for you. The harder we work, the better we'll be. And there's no reason to do this if you don't intend to win. That's Fox's approach in everything they do in sports. I like that."

Staff writer Michael Rosenberg contributed to this report.

Clash of the Titans

News Corp.

In the United States, the parent company of Fox Sports Net owns or has interests in:

New York Rangers

New York Knicks

Los Angeles Dodgers

Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Lakers

Fox network

Madison Square Garden in New York (which is controlled by Cablevision Systems Corp.)

Staples Center in Los Angeles

The cable channels Outdoor Life, Speedvision, FIT TV, Fox Sports World, FX, Fox Family Worldwide, Fox News Channel, The Golf Channel

22 regional cable sports channels including Bethesda-based Home Team Sports (which is primarily owned by CBS)

The New York Post

TV Guide

Walt Disney Co.

In the United States, the parent company of ESPN owns or has interests in:

ABC

Anaheim Angels

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

ESPN-related ventures including: the cable channels ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic and ESPN International, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, 20 international networks, ESPN Regional Television, ESPN Zone dining facilities, ESPN the Store and ESPN Home Video

Lifetime Television

Sports Ticker

Wide World of Sports resort complex

GO Network Internet hub, ESPN.com, ABCNEWS.com and affiliated sites

In addition, News Corp. has a joint venture with ESPN in Asia to operate StarTV, a national channel that includes television programs, movies and ESPN sports

Time Warner INC.

In the United States, the parent company of CNN/SI owns or has interests in:

Sports Illustrated

The Turner Entertainment cable channels: TBS and TNT

CNN

HBO

Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta Thrashers (NHL expansion team)

In the House

Number of U.S. households reached by the three sports news networks (in millions):

ESPN

76

Others: ESPN2 (65 million); ESPNEWS (12 million)

FOX SPORTS NET

68

22 regional channels including Home Team Sports

CNN/SI

15

Sports Tonight reaches 76 million with CNN simulcast