2015 was a game changer in sports media. Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd left the tight claws of ESPN for other networks. And the losses for the Mothership were much larger than the two oversized personalities, with significant subscriber losses emerging as a major narrative. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as only some sports media stories over the last 365 days will have a lasting impact. Attempting to look ahead half a decade, here are the top five stories from 2015 that will affect the consumption of sports media in 2020, whether it be the medium, the networks, and even the sports themselves.
5) Bill Simmons debuts his HBO show, but it talks about much more than sports and does not last
Simmons’ ESPN exodus in May was not only unexpected – John Skipper had not hinted at anything in an interview with me from a week prior to the announcement – it was the first of many cuts made by the network. Simmons, along with a handful of his Grantland pals, has moved onto HBO, where the Sports Guy has two podcast channels, including his eponymous chart-topping feed.
A podcast is all well and good, but HBO did not spend unreported millions to hear Simmons talk with Joe House, Cousin Sal, and – once in a while – Lena Dunham. On pretty much every show, there is a read for HBO Now because they were “nice enough” to give Simmons his own show. Other than the fact that a show exists and will be premiering next spring, nothing has been made public about it. That has led to speculation his show is going to focus less on sports and more on pop culture and the entertainment world.
Most of the podcasts on BSPN’s secondary feed, Channel 33, are entertainment related, with only four of 18 episodes (as of 12/27/15) holding a sports focus. This does not mean Simmons cannot have an impact on the network’s sports coverage, but I have never found Simmons’ pop culture tastes and opinions super relevant. Shows like The Challenge and The Wire only have so much relevance. There is a good reason most of Simmons’ writing and podcasting at Grantland was sports-based and not entertainment-based.
The fact that Simmons’ future talk show will not focus entirely sports may also have some influence from HBO. The pay cable network has experimented with studio-based sports talk and interview shows in the past, though success has been far from constant. Real Sports has been on air for two decades. Bob Costas’ Costas Now was also a solid show, though not popular enough for HBO to keep him after a few years hosting it. (Ed Note: According to NBC PR, Costas left an offer at HBO to work for MLB Network.) And how could anyone forget Artie Lange on Joe Buck Live? Considering that mixed bag and some of Simmons’ bombastic sports opinions, HBO may want him to veer away from the NBA and toward Narcos.
In five years, Bill Simmons will still be talking to his friends and guessing lines on his podcast. He will also have an opportunity to transcend sports and become a legitimate voice in pop culture coverage. But unless his yet-to-debut show gains traction over time, there is a chance he may be changing places again.
4) NFL ratings (finally) begin to fall, and they force the league to address negative press
Bear with me on this one, because in 2015 it seems like nothing can take down the NFL. Between scandals on and off the field, the consequences for Roger Goodell and co. have been negligible. Ratings continue to improve, making the league more lucrative and popular than ever. However, by the time 2020 rolls around, the children who grew up playing sports other than football (or no sports at all) will have a negative effect on the talent pool for the NFL.
The NFL will not be able to stop the flood of negative press. League of Denial and Concussion have already put a focus on head injuries, while studies are in all stages of progress, including some with results and some just starting.
Don’t forget, all of this is separate from numerous other issues that could have legs of their own. No one trusts referees anymore, players get arrested on what seems like a weekly basis, and eight of Sports Illustrated’s preseason top-10 quarterbacks will be in the twilight of their careers (35 or older), if not retired. The men under center have always been the biggest names and personalities for the NFL. If teams are unable to find or draft talented replacements, the aforementioned lack of talent could directly affect the quality of the most profitable talent in the league.
If ratings fall for the NFL, they may need to start improving the league from safety and policy standpoints instead of ignoring the onslaught of negative press currently flooding league offices.
3) Women in sports media today continue opening the door for women to have sports opinions and hold important roles
For years it seemed like women had only a handful of options for roles at sports networks. They could be sideline reporters, highlight anchors, or moderators on debate programs, but nothing more. There was nary an opportunity for them to share legitimate opinions.
Between the emergences of Jessica Mendoza in the booth on ESPN, Katie Nolan on Garbage Time, and plenty of others, women were free to give opinions that moved discussions forward. ESPN Radio’s weekend schedule was full of female voices, including the January debut of the very entertaining espnW Presents: Spain & Prim.
This will no doubt continue. Mendoza earned rave reviews from anyone who chose not to be sexist while Nolan calling Greg Hardy a garbage human was one of the best commentaries on his actions. Lindsay Czarniak now hosts the 6 PM SportsCenter solo. And plenty of talented journalism flew under the radar on espnW. These are only a few examples of outstanding work by women in 2015.
Five years from now, more women will have important roles at the sports networks. Long gone will be the days of Cari Champion’s internment on First Take. These women have earned their place alongside the men and should never again be considered inferior because of their gender. Chauvinists behind their keyboards will continue to be stupid, but women making an impact in sports media in 2020 will show that 2015 was only the beginning.
2) Cord cutting continues, forcing sports networks to find new ways to make money
ESPN reported a significant loss of seven million subscribers over the last two years. At this point, it is clear the sports networks are no longer immune to cord cutters. And that was a huge part of ESPN’s revenue, though it is offset somewhat by the unusual nature of their carriage fees. Now, the Worldwide Leader and other sports networks have to find new ways to afford all of their new rights deals.
One option could be an over-the-top package. This is something similar to HBO Now and Sling TV, which offers the ESPN family of networks. With Sling TV, subscribers can choose add-on networks on top of a base package of channels offered in a streaming-only package. CBS has tried this with CBS All Access, but the NFL is excluded from its service.
Disney has contemplated the possibility of an OTT service, but not everyone is sold on the idea. It seems like a complete Disney-centric package that includes everything the House of Mouse has a stake in – the ESPN family, Disney Channel (and Disney XD), A&E’s networks (including History and Lifetime), ABC Family (soon-to-be Freeform), and Hulu – might be able to entice a whole cord-cutting family, but it might be too niche for anyone else. Fox, CBS, and NBC could also attempt something similar, but none of these could even come close to the sports draw of what Disney could do.
The networks could also take after NBA League Pass and allow for people to purchase single-game passes for big events like playoff games. But they will all need to come up with answers of some sort to combat cord cutting and one of their most profitable revenue streams. In five years, not only will all of them have answers, they will continue to innovate out of necessity and for the sake of profitability.
1) As rights fees continue to rise, the gap between ESPN and other sports networks starts to shrink
This can go hand in hand with reduced profits from cord cutting as the Mothership has already started to lose ancillary parts of their sports lineup. Golf majors, once a staple of ESPN’s programming, are almost nonexistent on the network. On the links, ESPN only holds rights to the first two rounds of the Masters, a far cry from a few years ago, when they broadcast portions of all four majors. And they more or less handed next year’s British Open to NBC, a year before their contract was supposed to kick in.
ESPN has had to cut staff and payroll in advance of their expensive new NBA rights deal, and the consequence is that they are no longer the invincible, singular sports network they had been for 30-plus years. Fox Sports has already pilfered Colin Cowherd, “Embrace Debate” guru Jamie Horowitz, Jason Whitlock, and plenty of others from Bristol proper, and they have plenty of funds to start chipping away live event rights, as well.
According to What You Pay For Sports, the Big Ten, Conference USA, certain soccer leagues, and the UFC are among those with expiring contracts between now and 2020. ESPN owns some of these rights, and it is highly likely they will not be adding any new contracts during the next negotiation period because of so many of the deals they already signed or will be signing. And they might be forced to give up on those they have now, including their Big Ten contract, which expires next year. Fox Sports already has a controlling interest in the Big Ten Network, so a complete shift to team Shanks would not be unheard of.
NBCSN already has a niche with hockey and soccer coverage while FS1 and 2 are going to have to figure out what they are in the coming half-decade. Their identity may just be a reflection of the rights deals they can get their hands on, but it cannot be any worse than “The 1 for Fun.”
ESPN can no longer completely ignore other networks because every contract they lose is an opportunity for millions of eyeballs tuning into another network. ESPN will still be the Worldwide Leader in Sports in 2020, but there is no doubt their lead will shrink as the other networks begin to poach rights deals away from Bristol.
2015 saw sports media personalities make news in their own right. For the first time since its ascension, ESPN looked vulnerable and cut loose some of their big names. How people consume media is changing, and sports are no longer immune to these changes. It is yet to be seen how the networks will deal with these issues and what issues will appear come 2020, but at least there will be more parity amongst commentators and networks when it comes to sports coverage.
Alex Kaufman is a Spanish and communication double major at Denison University. He loves to consume and cover sports and sports media, hosts a sports talk show on 91.1 WDUB, and can be found on Twitter @NSF_Alex and at his own website, neuroticsportsfan.com.