America at Large: ESPN feeling pinch as economic model crumbles

Cable sports network loses 10m subscribers as technological revolution bites

With revenues way down and expenses going up, around 100 high-profile employees were let go last week by the network. Photograph:  Mike Windle/Getty Images

With revenues way down and expenses going up, around 100 high-profile employees were let go last week by the network. Photograph: Mike Windle/Getty Images

 

For a network that never saw a sports statistic it didn’t want to flog to death, it’s somehow inevitable that ESPN”s current’s travails can, at one level, be explained as a simple matter of numbers.

It has shed 10 million subscribers over the past five years, a time that unhappily coincides with the corporation either doubling or tripling the rate it pays for the rights to show the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. With revenues way down and expenses going up, around 100 high-profile employees were let go last week in just the latest round of redundancies.

As is unfortunately the way of these things, that so many departing in this pruning were on-air regulars and household names across America meant this particular cull got a lot more coverage than all the others.

A ramshackle outfit that started out showing men’s professional softball from a building with no running water and portaloos from a remote corner of Connecticut in 1979, and grew into the self-styled worldwide leader in sports, ESPN is a behemoth now reckoning with the folly of crippling deals like forking out $1.9 billion for an NFL package including a live game every Monday night.

What looked like a ludicrously extravagant purchase even under normal circumstances has been rendered potentially fatal because of technology revolutionising how people consume televised sport.

In an era of cord-cutting and narrow streaming and who knows what evolutions down the road, cable companies and consumers are reluctant to pay a monthly premium for access to a sports network, even one that offers so much blanket coverage of almost every code.

Aside from being embroiled in a financial struggle, ESPN, like newspapers once the internet came along, is also battling to remain relevant.

This is a startling turn of events given that SportsCenter, its flagship evening show, was once such an intrinsic part of popular culture that it changed how the games were played.

Once it became appointment television in the late 1980s, athletes started to showboat or to attempt spectacular selfish plays simply because they were desperate for a cameo on that evening’s broadcast. Those highlight packages were delivered with a dash of wit and brio that made presenters famous and launched catchphrases that became part of the lexicon.

No matter where you spent the day or evening, SportsCenter offered the opportunity for an entertaining catch-up on the action you missed.

Quaint relic

If the arrival of the internet marked the beginning of the end of its heyday, the introduction of smart phones made obsolete the very idea of waiting until 10pm to see a home run or a dunk.

A generation has come of age with attention spans the length of a seven-second vine, and they expect to have in their hands instantaneous access to every touchdown. To them, SportsCenter is, like collecting baseball cards, a quaint relic of their fathers’ youth.

An alternative narrative suggests ESPN’s eschewing of political neutrality and its embrace of left-wing opinions in a desperate attempt to stay hip has contributed to its downfall.

In this regard, the decision to give Caitlyn Jenner the network’s Arthur Ashe award for courage, the support offered to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during his national anthem protest, and last year’s skewed election coverage are often blamed for driving away viewers who lean Republican.

“That is definitely a percentage of it,” said veteran presenter Linda Cohn. “I don’t know how big a percentage, but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”

Perhaps inevitably, given that it’s sprawled across several different channels, ESPN has always been full of contradictions. At the height of the steroids in baseball era, it was capable of running an in-depth investigation into the issue one moment then cutting away to commentators and pundits salivating over Barry Bonds’ chemically-enhanced record-breaking without even mentioning the elephant in the room.

In the same vein, the network who brought the world the epic 30 for 30 documentaries are also responsible for some of the most vacuous characters on the American sports landscape.

And that seems to be part of this story too. Whatever people think explains the haemorrhaging of viewers, many have been offended by the way the cuts appear to have prized style over substance. As rumours swirled in recent weeks about which heads were on the block, insiders were, bizarrely, warned that delivering high quality work was not going to protect people from the chop.

Hardly surprising then that overpaid bloviators like Stephen A Smith survived, retaining a position that pays him $3.5m a year to pontificate on a daily basis about subjects he often knows little and cares less about. When venerated beat reporters are deemed surplus to requirements, the message is clearly that actual journalism won’t be missed as long as Smith and his ilk are willing to deliver instant, scarcely thought-out opinions about absolutely everything.

“It causes me to wonder what is ESPN about because I thought it was about news and information and highlights, and I’m not sure that is the point of emphasis anymore,” said Ed Werder, a highly-respected NFL reporter, after being fired.

“How is ESPN going to cover the NFL without all of the people who just lost their jobs? Are we really about to see a time when ESPN can no longer afford to cover its most valuable property in the way that historically it has?”

It sure looks that way.

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