For all of the issues viewers may have with ESPN, one thing is for sure – those issues aren’t affecting how many people are watching the Worldwide Leader.
In the first quarter of 2015, both ESPN and ESPN2 were up double digits from the first quarter of 2014. Much of the 11% jump experienced by ESPN can be attributed to the blockbuster success of the College Football Playoff, which drew the three highest audiences in cable TV history for the pair of semifinal games and the Championship. When you tack on the addition of ESPN’s first-ever NFL playoff game (the Panthers-Cardinals slog) and the return of the Pro Bowl, it’s pretty obvious why ESPN’s gains were so significant from 2014.
The jump for ESPN2 is harder to explain, however. Viewers were up 10% for the quarter, and January’s Outback Bowl was the highest-rated program that the network has ever seen. But aside from the Outback Bowl, ESPN2’s biggest hits were studio shows, radio simulcasts, college basketball, and late night/early morning Australian Open tennis. One bowl game can’t draw that much of an overall increase in viewership, so the regular lineup must be doing something right.
I do think it’s interesting that we’re in a time where ESPN is faced with more competition than ever before, and not only are they weathering the storm, they’re thriving. And this is why the expected challenge of Fox Sports 1 will take so long to make a dent in ESPN’s numbers – you’re dealing with such a dominant force at the top that going full steam ahead at the beginning is like running into a brick wall. Fox Sports 1 (and perhaps NBCSN as well) may be a worthy challenger in time, but it’s going to take years of chipping away at ESPN’s monolithic reach to get there.