You probably didn't catch ESPN blowing out 25 candles earlier this month, but the fact that the cable network has achieved such longevity is worthy of a signature "da-da-da, da-da-da" of punctuated praise.

When Disney (NYSE:DIS) acquired Capital Cities/ABC nine years ago, it may have been the major ABC network that won Mickey Mouse over, but it is ESPN that has been vindicating the deal lately.

How important is ESPN? Back in 1979, when the network was being launched in Bristol, Conn., far outside the established media hubs and just down the street from the Lake Compounce amusement park, heat-hurling Nolan Ryan became the first athlete to command a million-dollar annual salary. Today, bench-warming second stringers top that sum. In 1979 the NFL received $8.8 million from TV networks for broadcasting rights. That mark will top $2.25 billion this year as Fox (NYSE:FOX), Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) CBS, and DirecTV (NYSE:DTV) help build out those coffers. Even satellite radio specialist Sirius (NASDAQ:SIRI) will be compensating the NFL to the tune of $220 million over the next seven years for the right to air the league's gridiron duels.

All this wouldn't be possible if it weren't for ESPN airing athletic feats and highlights around the clock. Companies such as Nike (NYSE:NKE) wouldn't be paying out millions to unproven athletes at the pro level if it were not for the cultural phenomenon that elevated sport heroes into camera-cognizant superstar celebrities.

That's what ESPN did. For better or worse, it's a legacy that turned raw cottage industries into polished stadium industries. Will the next 25 years launch even more ESPN channels and catapult the drama and popularity of athletics into an even higher level of ubiquity?

In the words of ESPN veteran Chris Berman, "It could... go... all... the... way...."

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of ESPN. He owns shares in Disney and Viacom but no other company mentioned in this story.