What the hell is going on in Bristol, Connecticut? For decades now, many things have been going right in the home to ESPN, “the worldwide leader in sports.” But lately, it feels as if something’s off. While you can still tune in and see college football games, NBA games, and plenty of quick-quipping SportsCenter anchors, it’s not the same. Sure, the network is killing it in some respects, such as the 30 for 30 series. But something is also wrong — and the network’s numbers prove it.
Let’s start with the fact that its viewers are leaving en masse. Ratings are down. A full 50% of men, according to a survey from BTIG Research, would be willing to rid themselves of ESPN and have their $8 deducted from their cable bill. Yes, that’s how much you’re paying for one or two channels, by the way.
Disney, ESPN’s parent company, isn’t too happy either. The network has seen multiple rounds of layoffs in recent months. And its continued troubles over the past few years mean Disney’s losing big bucks. Executives aren’t too optimistic that things are going to turn around either.
So what’s the problem? Why has everyone turned on ESPN over the past few years? The problems run pretty deep. Part of it is the programming. Part of it is rooted in changing tastes of viewers. And another part of it is the traditional distribution system — cable television — is being usurped by online streaming.
All of this can be overcome, of course, if Disney and ESPN are willing to fix what’s wrong with the network. And there are several things in need of fixing.
First and foremost: The lack of sports
- Live sports programming across ESPN channels peaked at 3,000 hours per year — and it’s dropping.
“Like it or not, ESPN is not sticking to sports.” These are the words of Jim Brady, ESPN’s public editor, written in April 2017. And if you were to encapsulate all of the network’s problems in a nutshell, this is it. People who grew up watching ESPN know it for one thing: sports. It’s more than that now, and a lot of viewers don’t like it. So they’re tuning out. Americans spent 31 billion hours watching sports in 2015, a number that has soared over the years. But ESPN is headed in a different direction.
This brings us to our next point: ESPN is essentially channeling TMZ.
The TMZ approach
- As live sports programming has become more expensive to produce, the network has shifted toward talking heads and analysis.
Years ago, you could turn on either ESPN or ESPN2 and probably run into an NHL game, Baseball Tonight, or a college football game. On ESPN2, you might even find something really unique, such as lumberjack competitions. In recent years, though, it seems the network has decided instead to focus more on the drama and gossip inside the world of sports. Stories involving Tiger Woods, Tim Tebow, Lebron’s “The Decision,” Ray Rice — all of them and more dominated headlines and airtime on ESPN networks.
The problem, of course, is many people who watch sports want to watch sports, not TMZ. And aside from all of the gossipy analysis, politics is another thing that is driving down viewership.
- While some criticize the network’s political coverage, 64% of viewers feel it has struck an appropriate mix.
While it’s hard to separate anything from politics these days, this is one thing ESPN has been hammered for in recent years. Despite that fact, nearly two-thirds of the network’s viewers say they’re OK with the mix that’s been struck.
But even ESPN anchors, such as Linda Cohn, have agreed politics is having an impact on viewership. Some examples? Coverage around Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests, Caitlyn Jenner, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. These may be important stories in their own right, but too much of it could turn away viewers.
Another knock against the network? All of its stars are gone.
All of our heroes are dead (or fired)
- The channel recently fired 100 of its biggest names, including reporters and anchors.
Many people remember ESPN’s heyday with personalities, including Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and more. Those people are long gone. Some have passed away, while others have moved on to their own shows on different channels — or, in the case of Olbermann, different genres completely. While ESPN still does have many big names that draw in viewers, the stable isn’t nearly stocked with talent as it once was. Gone are the days of Rich Eisen and Kenny Mayne — and it’s having an effect.
Another big factor? The cost of keeping ESPN streaming into your house.
The cable bill
- ESPN’s top four networks alone add $9.06 to your cable bill every month.
Cord-cutting is definitely the network’s biggest problem at this point. It’s bleeding subscribers, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that many people are ditching cable. Cable’s expensive. The average cable bill is more than $100 per month, and ESPN alone can account for up to 10% of that. Why pay that much when you can opt for Netflix or HBO Now for a fraction of the price? Evidently, people are finding that paying so much for sports content simply isn’t worth it, especially when you can go catch the game down at a local bar or restaurant.
One thing many people take issue with is that ESPN and Disney aren’t trying to fix any of these issues.
It’s a bleeding cash cow
- The channel has lost 12 million subscribers in six years and has upped its rates, charging cable companies $7.21 per month per subscriber.
In short, ESPN is trying to double dip. The network wants to charge more for access to its content but doesn’t want to make the effort to give people want they want. It’s earning less, bleeding subscribers, and still charging outrageous prices. And again, it’s also producing more content that is the opposite of what viewers want — fewer sports, more talking heads, etc.
This doesn’t add up to a winning strategy, and people know it. They see a network that’s more or less forcing content they don’t want down their throats and asking them to pay more for it.
The question is whether there’s a fix.
There’s no easy way out of the woods for ESPN. The network is trying to adapt by launching streaming services and investing in better content. And when all is said and done, ESPN will probably still be around for years to come. But it’s hard to think it will ever be the same again. It does have a streaming service on the horizon, but as long as Disney keeps it tied to cable so tightly, ESPN might never be able to flourish like it did in the 1990s.
As for some ways it could right the ship? Here are some suggestions:
- Broadcast more live sports coverage.
- Fine tune the political coverage.
- Make the product more accessible and at a cheaper price.
- The bottom line: People want more sports and less talk.