The State of ESPN

This week AA has presented a series on the state of cable sports ahead of the launch of Fox Sports 1.  Our hope was to speak with executives from each of the four major national cable sports networks to provide them a platform and speak to viewers at this inflection point in the industry.  Tuesday I spoke with NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller.  Ken Fang then spoke with CBS Sports President David Berson and Fox Sports Executive VP of Research and Programming Bill Wanger.  

Today we hoped to close the series by speaking to a representative from ESPN, but Bristol denied multiple requests for an interview with one of their key decision makers.  While that's disappointing (not just to us, but to others hoping for more openness and transparency) it's not going to cause us to take our ball and go home and not write about ESPN.  After all, that's why God gave us the gift of the web log, right?  So as best as I can, here's some answers to questions about the state of ESPN on the eve of their next challenger arising.

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ESPN is no stranger to competition.  Over the last generation Bristol has seen would-be conquerors come and go while they only continued to grow bigger, faster, and stronger.  In the last 30+ years, ESPN has gone from a small northeastern network to a global behemoth worth in excess of $40 billion dollars.  In 1979 an estimated 30,000 people were there to watch the launch of ESPN.  Now over 30 million people visit its website alone in a single month.  It is one of the largest, most successful companies in the world.  ESPN is the Yankees, Red Sox, Lakers, Celtics, Cowboys, and Manchester United of sports television combined.  Anyone who hopes to surpass them better be prepared to climb not Everest, but Olympus Mons.

However, ESPN is far from invincible and the marketplace has been crying out for true competition at the national level for years.  Certain programs feed the lowest common denominator far too often, questions about ESPN's commitment to journalism and conflicts of interest have been repeatedly raised, and the company has shut down international channels and laid off several hundred workers earlier this year.  Will ESPN finally succumb to that competition or will it only serve to make them better?

ESPN's mantra in the John Skipper era has been focused on live sports rights, how strong is their positioning?

The underlying brilliance of current ESPN President John Skipper is his realization that live sports rights drives everything.  That's why Fox, NBC, and CBS are all playing catch up in trying to build their cable sports networks and finding progress happening very slowly.  ESPN is the go-to channel for the sports fan because they have all the games.  Just observe this far from complete list below of the incredible bounty that is ESPN's live sports portfolio:

Monday Night Football, NFL Draft, NBA Playoffs, NBA Draft, MLB, BCS, college football, college basketball, World Cup, USA soccer, tennis majors, NASCAR, British Open, World Series of Poker, NCAA Championships, Little League World Series, X Games, WNBA, Crossfit Games, etc.

All of those rights fees combined are worth more than the total GDP of Ireland.  It's an otherworldly amount of sports television.  As long as ESPN holds its grip on major properties like the NFL, the BCS, and the NBA they aren't going anywhere.  Nevertheless, ESPN doesn't live in a world where they can merely pick and choose what they want anymore.  Bristol was unable to acquire the Olympics from NBC.  They lost the World Cup to Fox and their NASCAR package back to the peacock as well.

Their live sports rights are still unbelievably strong, but the sheer amount of competitors now makes it impossible for them to hold a monopoly.

So then is it a virtual lock that ESPN will hold onto NBA rights when negotiations begin soon?

Yes.  ESPN has lost some key properties, but it's just as important for ESPN to keep the NBA away from NBC and Fox as it is to hold it themselves.  The NBA is the second biggest sport at ESPN behind the NFL, filling hours of live games and studio shows with the starpower of players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.  The fact that the network didn't even make a bid for NASCAR is an even clearer sign they're saving something extra in the coffers to ensure they keep NBA rights.

Has ESPN changed their approach in bringing in big name hires like Keith Olbermann and Nate Silver?

Another favorite ESPN mantra is that nobody is bigger than the network.  Ok, maybe except for Chris Berman.  ESPN has been more than happy to see some of its bigger stars like Michelle Beadle, Erin Andrews, and others leave the network knowing full well they could reload from within.

If there's one direct reaction at ESPN to the launch of Fox Sports 1, it's their willingness to bring in huge personalities they wouldn't have in the past.  Personalities that may or may not have napalmed bridges back to Bristol, even.  Keith Olbermann's return to ESPN was about as likely as zombie Babe Ruth returning to the Boston Red Sox and feasting on the brain of Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  And yet, there he is hosting an 11 PM ET show on ESPN2 to go against Fox Sports Live.  If Olbermann wasn't controversial enough, ESPN also poached Jason Whitlock directly from Fox.  The best move of all was the innovative hire of Nate Silver to build a Grantlandesque website around his 538 brand. 

Each of those hires represents something of a risk, whether it be in their polarizing nature, past baggage, or building a new website brand around… a risk ESPN may not have felt compelled to take a year ago.

ESPN has faced many questions about their journalistic integrity in past years, what steps has the network taken to be more transparent?

ESPN has improved greatly in the department of crediting outside outlets and dampening skepticism about their journalistic integrity.  After reaching a critical mass of reporters accusing ESPN of stealing scoops, the network finally instituted a clear sourcing policy that has quelled discontentment.  While "ESPN & Media Reports" isn't perfect, it's a step in the right direction from slapping the "sources" tag on everything.  Furthermore, ESPN has not changed its colors to burnt orange in spite of the ownership stake in the Longhorn Network.

Most importantly, ESPN's investigative reporting efforts have seen a renewed emphasis in quality and relevancy.  Outside the Lines and Frontline are teaming up on a groundbreaking series on concussions.  TJ Quinn has led the way in PED reporting.  A bevy of reporters have been at the center of the continuing Johnny Manziel saga.  And Jay Bilas is continuing his one man crusade to single-handedly bring down the NCAA.  All of those institutions represent major rights partners, and yet ESPN has pursued major breaking and unflattering news in those areas.

Of course, the resurgence in this department has made the relegation of Outside the Lines to ESPN2 at the expense of a new football show featuring Colin Cowherd all the more ironic.

Has the embrace of "Embrace Debate" and TMZization of the sports world hurt the ESPN brand in a tangible way?

ESPN President John Skipper likes to say the network isn't "monolithic" which is a nice way of saying they do some really great things… and some really stupid stuff too.  Perhaps that's natural at an outlet as huge as ESPN, but to tell the truth the network brings plenty of deserved criticism upon itself.  See the continued existence and promotion of First Take – ESPN's version of Jerry Springer, Dance Moms, and Two And A Half Men all rolled into one.  See the live morning editions of SportsCenter, which makes Honey Boo Boo look like a Mensa meeting at times.  See the two year long obsession with Tim Tebow that still hasn't quite been completely cured.  See the never-ending thirst for starpower at the expense of real news and highlights fans are craving.

The higher ups in Bristol might think they can have it both ways, but when Rob Parker goes on ESPN2 and questions whether or not Robert Griffin III is a "cornball brother" it hurts ESPN's brand.  When Skip and Stephen A. do their carnival act it hurts ESPN's brand.  When Colin Cowherd plays sociologist and demeans half his audience it hurts ESPN's brand.  It's nothing but blind allegiance to the sanctity of the brand to think otherwise.

ESPN is much more than pre-ordained shouting matches and LeBron James tweets, but the network has lost respect in the minds of way too many fans because of self-inflicted reasons in recent years.  If the critiques of media writers, bloggers, and social media ever reach dissatisfaction in the silent majority it could lead ESPN's core audience to seeking an alternative.

When is ESPN at its best?

ESPN's live game coverage is still at the head of the field.  Its soccer coverage is second to none in American sports and coverage of the tennis majors and college football isn't far behind.  Take last month's British Open as a perfect example of just how good ESPN can be.  A network that doesn't air any other full golf tournament during the year brings an entire team together with terrific on-air talent (Tirico, Van Pelt, McDonough, etc.) and produces a stellar broadcast like clockwork.

There are scores of top pros in the booth, the reporting field, or the studio that don't get much press.  People like Dave Pasch, Chris McKendry, Robert Flores, Adnan Virk, Ed Werder, John Clayton, Lindsay Czarniak, John Buccigross, Dan Shulman, Lisa Salters, Doris Burke, Mike Breen and many others.

And SportsCenter can still produce class when called upon.  The live episode covering the Boston Marathon bombing anchored by Bob Ley and Jeremy Schapp was as good as any news telecast.

Do declining ratings and layoffs this year represent the fact that ESPN is more vulnerable to a competitor than ever before?

Ratings are meant to be spun and spun hard.  One person can look at ESPN reaching multi-year lows in ratings and call it a "rare aberration" (as ESPN themselves did) while another can view the same raw data as the beginning of the end for ESPN.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  While the roller coaster nature of live event ratings (Celtics-Heat vs Spurs-Grizzlies, BCS blowouts, etc) played a big role in 2013's numbers being down, it's also true that ESPN's flagship show SportsCenter has seen significant declines across the board from last year.

ESPN's ratings may be declining from last year, but the ESPN family of networks still outdraw all the other cable sports networks combined.  And by a healthy margin of over 300,000 viewers too.  Even though Fox Sports 1 will launch in 90 million homes August 17th, they realistically won't begin to even approach ESPN's ratings for quite some time.

As far as the layoffs go, ESPN did let go of several hundred employees in cost cutting measures.  However, the network continues to hire at the macro and micro level.  To think that ESPN is teetering on the edge of any sort of financial trouble is foolish, especially considering the future arrival of their new futuristic digital center.

What are the most important elements that will ensure ESPN's long-term place at the top of the sports world?

The reality is that we are many years from Fox Sports 1 or any other network coming close to reaching or surpassing ESPN for two simple reasons.

First, the insanely high fees ESPN draws.  Fox Sports 1 had to relinquish hopes of drawing $0.80 per subscriber per month and instead will be carried at Speed's bargain rate of $0.23.  According to What You Pay For Sports, NBC Sports Network is $0.31 and CBS Sports Network was the lowest at $0.19.  

ESPN alone charges $5.40 per subscriber per month.  Almost 5 times the cost of the next most expensive cable channel.  That amounts to $6 BILLION dollars for ESPN every year just from cable fees.  Every month ESPN will be making over 23 times the amount of money Fox Sports 1 will be from cable bills.

It all goes back to the genius of former ESPN president George Bodenheimer, who negotiated a 20% increase in cable fees each year when ESPN first acquired the NFL.  That alone brought ESPN an 800% increase in subscriber fees and has been called by another former ESPN president, Steve Bornstein, "the most important thing that ever happened to ESPN financially and still probably the most significant contributor to ESPN's success today."  

ESPN will print their own money for years to come thanks to these fees.  No other network does.

The second is not dollars, but sense.  In every sports bar, gym, dorm, and place of activity across the country ESPN is the default sports channel.  Take a walk inside your local BW's or LA Fitness or campus center and you'll see ESPN on the television.  Not NBCSN, not CBS Sports Network, and not Fox Sports 1 when it launches.  You will find ESPN… or maybe ESPN2.  That default setting can't change in a week, month, year, or even decade.  Until a competitor matches their total package of delivering live sports, news, entertainment, and opinion ESPN will remain on those televisions.

As long as the massive gap exists between ESPN and its competitors in subscriber fees and it stays the ingrained sports network of choice, ESPN's position at the top of the sports world will remain a fortress.

How would you describe ESPN in one word?

While it's tempting to say Tebow, I think this is a better option…

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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