In light of the recent layoffs at ESPN and FS1 (and Fox Sports Digital), performing an autopsy of sorts on these two huge media conglomerates has become a favorite pastime for those who follow and cover sports media. Count Bill Simmons among those wanting to conduct a post-mortem, eager to say “I told you so” regarding his former employer.

For the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Simmons had author James Andrew Miller — who literally wrote the book on ESPN and is still very tuned in to the machinations in Bristol — and Bryan Curtis, editor-at-large who covers media for The Ringer, on the show to discuss what happened to ESPN over the past four years and where the network might go from here.

It’s a wide-ranging discussion over a 90-minute podcast that’s worth your listening time. But for the purposes of discussing the sports media industry, one excerpt to focus on is how ESPN may have hurt itself by concerning itself too much by the launch of FS1. For all the talk about the huge money ESPN spent on rights fees for the NBA, NFL, MLB and college football, did network executives overreact in paying talent that might have jumped to FS1. Here is a transcript of the discussion, which begins at the 18:00 mark of the podcast.

Bill Simmons: [2013] was the biggest revenue year [ESPN] had, and the biggest profit they made, all that stuff. Then when Fox came, it became “Oh, how dare Fox challenges us.”

Jim Miller: That was a weird moment, though. Look, the moat was pretty big. Skipper had gone out and spent a ton of money, close to $27 billion over college football, engineered longer deals than anybody had ever done in the business. You can’t have a bigger moat at that point. It’s easy to say this in Monday morning quarterbacking, but I said it at the time, I think that they overreacted to Fox [Sports] 1. There are several ESPN talent now who are enjoying gargantuan salaries, compared to what they used to make, because there was even a sniff, like “Oh, Fox might want them.” All of a sudden, double their salary, triple their salary.

BS: I think it was ’13. That was when Sage was threatening to go to Fox, Whitlock they were trying to get at that point, I think.

JM: Olbermann was actually not an expensive deal, given Keith’s history and what they pay other people.

BS: But I know for a fact they were like, “Oh, really? Fox is going to challenge us? Watch this.” It was like somebody trying to challenge the Yankees in 2002. We’ll just go get Kevin Brown. And then a year later was when the cord-cutting stuff started because that summer, the ratings started to go down. And they were just completely flummoxed by it. Why is this happening?

This was the year they had the World Cup and I remember there was this email, the person who does the analytics and stuff sent this long email trying to figure out what the causes were. And one of the reasons that they theorized was “World Cup fatigue.” After the World Cup, ESPN viewers were fatigued with ESPN. In this email was also, “Another possibility is that younger viewers are going right to streaming services like Roku,” they listed all these things. Yeah, that was the reason actually. Younger viewers are just cutting and going to phones.

I just don’t think they saw any of it coming. I never heard the word “subs” until 2014, used in a way like “We’re losing subs.” And that was the game-changer. When [Skipper] did the NBA deal, they thought subs would be a fixed thing. Now the question is, should they have seen it? That’s a really hard thing to anticipate. You need somebody just dialed in to where shit’s going.

JM: Well, who was, though? In Burbank, there’s a strategic group, an abundance of people looking at the industry outside of ESPN. When you look back, I don’t think a lot of people were talking about it. The truth is, I don’t think anybody at Disney or ESPN was really thinking about it. You gotta include Disney there.

You can listen to the entire podcast above, which includes some speculation as to why ESPN fired top executives John Kosner and Marie Donoghue, both of whom will leave the network by the end of the year.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

  • newdog301

    People are going to get angry when I say this, but the problem with FS1 is that there is not enough talking.

    I’m not advocating for more shows like the ones they have, nor am I defending embrace debate, I’m saying that you can’t expect to grow a cable station when you have 6.5 hours of content a day (Undisputed, The Herd and Speak For Yourself.) I know they have MLB Whiparound, but that’s an exclusive show. You can turn on ESPN almost any hour of the day and one of their networks will have SportsCenter or a show that covers football, basketball and baseball, not just one.

    Clearly they need more sports rights packages and I’d propose getting their hands on literally any professional league they can.

    TBS has the E-League and ESPN has CFL. I think you can outbid those networks for those rights. Euroleague basketball is a property I’m surprised no network has looked into. KHL hockey is another option.

    I would even talk to the NFL and NBA about airing classic games. Imagine if FS1 did “The Summer of Football” and every morning from 8-11 aired a Super Bowl for 10 weeks? I think you’d definitely get people in football withdrawal tuning in.

    Don’t rule out pro-wrestling either. Lucha Underground has a passionate fanbase and Fox could provide the cash infusion they need to continue going.

    You just have to be creative.

    You can’t just sit around and wait for the big four to come up because you’re not going to win those without a solid cable station or a tradition. Once FS1 becomes a 24/7 content provider they can start to build ground on the rest in those bidding wars.

    • Karl

      The classic NBA is definitely not happening, ESPN and Turner pay big money for exclusivity and they’re not sharing with a competitor. NFL is also unlikely as they (along with the NBA) have their own network they’d rather people tune into if there’s a market for that programming.

      I think you’re right on “more talk” though- but FS1 needs to focus on Fox properties like they have in the past before pulling the plug too soon. A dedicated daily football show or separate NFL and college football shows that focus on their rights (NFC markets in the NFL, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 college rights), and a daily MLB show- ESPN just shut the door on MLB fans, and they’re all retirees at home, go get them!

      If it were my call, after the NFL season winds down I’d go with a 30 minute soccer show daily that is focused on building up World Cup interest among casual fans. Fox owns the next two world cups and have done a shitty job selling soccer to date. It’s a shame because it’s a tailor-made sport for half-baked hot takes and morons trying to create narratives.

    • Walt_Gekko

      There is also Horse Racing. Especially on a night like last night (Thursday after the All-Star Game), I would have worked with The Meadowlands to move The Meadowlands Pace, one of the biggest events in all of Harness Racing to Thursday Night where it would have had the national sports spotlight almost to itself.

  • Jeremy W

    its all going online i think by 2030 the NBA will be on twitter facebook youtube and turner nba/tv and ABC Finals only the NFL will be on amazonprime mon nights Facebook Thur night google Sundays and all the networks will get is playoffs/superbowl and that couild go to Amazon or Google

    MLB will be MLB Network FSN Fox and Facebook
    NHL will be NBC NBCSN and NHL NETWORK

    i think u couild see a day when ESPN has none of the 4 Major Sports

  • MrBull

    What has done in espn is espn management!….they over paid for rights and to retain talent all because of Fox….how stupid….if anyone had followed Fox and what they tried to do with regional sports channels they owned, only to quit on the plan a couple of years later…then there was nothing to worry about with FS1/FS2….
    And just look at what Fox has done to FS1/2 now….

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