5. Women’s soccer’s rise and remaining issues

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Women’s soccer had some of its highest points ever this year, with incredible ratings for the Women’s World Cup overall and the U.S. games in particular, a contrast to many pre-tournament expectations. Fox’s significant investment in on-the-ground studio shows and coverage paid off, and has many feeling more confident about their ability to broadcast the World Cup in 2018. The Women’s World Cup also brought more attention to women’s soccer in general, with Fox picking up more NWSL games and the USWNT’s “Victory Tour” games afterwards. However, the ratings for those have been nowhere near as strong, and it will be interesting to see if networks keep televising women’s soccer extensively when it’s not the World Cup. We’ll also see if the NWSL can continue to succeed where previous U.S.-based women’s soccer professional leagues have failed.

4. NFL streaming takes off

History was made this year with the first NFL game ever distributed mostly via streaming (apart from local TV), with Yahoo streaming Bills-Jaguars from London and announcing 15.2 million unique viewers. Streaming is only going to become more important for the NFL, with commissioner Roger Goodell meeting with tech company executives in November and this week’s news that the league is looking to sign a non-exclusive streaming deal for its Thursday night games. These deals are significant in their own right as a new NFL revenue source, but they’re also something other leagues are quite interested in too (for instance, the CFL streamed its playoff games on YouTube outside areas with broadcast deals this year). The rise of streaming is something we may see more widely in the future.

3. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em: “ESPN alternative” Fox Sports 1 takes on ESPN’s worst aspects

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Remember how different from ESPN Fox Sports 1 (or “FS1” these days) planned to be back when it launched in 2013? Fox Sports president Eric Shanks even said “fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment” at their launch party. Two years later, FS1 is no longer “The 1 For Fun”. Indeed, Fox has become closer and closer to the establishment, and has taken on some of the most problematic aspects of ESPN, particularly following the hire of former First Take mastermind Jamie Horowitz. This is a guy who got fired by NBC before he even officially started, and someone who’s been responsible for the lowest of lowest-common-denominator programming at ESPN. Since then, the Horowitzization has continued, and Fox is fully embracing the most controversial forms of debate, hiring the likes of Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock and extending Clay Travis’ contract to let him “expand his sports media brand” (which, so far, seems to mostly include further controversial Outkick The Coverage pieces, appearances on debate-embracing Fox Sports Live Countdown, and a “first-of-its-kind” new video podcast, or “Quadcast,” because it’s filmed on three iPhones and an iPad).

Of course, “alternative” never necessarily meant “good”, but it’s still unfortunate to see Fox become “ESPN Too: First Take Harder.” To be fair, they still employ some great people and do some great things. Their soccer coverage has been generally solid, their college football coverage has some excellent talents like Bruce Feldman and Joel Klatt, they have plenty of talented reporters and analysts elsewhere, and Fox Sports Live remains a compelling and interesting highlights show. Yet, those looking for Fox to learn from ESPN’s mistakes and offer a better alternative were horribly disappointed in 2015.

2. Bill Simmons leaves ESPN for HBO

After years of tension, Bill Simmons and ESPN finally parted ways in 2015. That made Simmons a hotly-sought free agent, and he landed at HBO, which seems like a terrific fit. His new podcast is finding great success and big things seem in store for this “Bill Simmons Media Group.” Meanwhile, ESPN appears determined to never again let anyone reach Simmons’ “bigger-than-the-brand” level. Despite landing on his feet, Simmons is still mad at his old employer, and is still taking plenty of shots at them.

1. ESPN’s layoffs and the changing dynamics¬†of the cable industry

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - JANUARY 30:  General view of the atmosphere at ESPN the Party at WestWorld of Scottsdale on January 30, 2015 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPN)
SCOTTSDALE, AZ – JANUARY 30: General view of the atmosphere at ESPN the Party at WestWorld of Scottsdale on January 30, 2015 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPN)

This is by far the biggest story of the year, as its effects go well beyond the Worldwide Leader. ESPN appears to be at the forefront of the cord-cutting wave, losing 7 million subscribers over the past two years. They rely on their subscriber fee heavily, so add that to their ever-increasing rights fees, and they have to make up over $3 billion annually. This negative news from ESPN tanked not just Disney’s stock, but media stocks in general this summer, and it’s led to massive layoffs and cutbacks. ESPN’s still leading the pack in subscribers and money compared to every other cable sports network, but they also have much more they’re locked into paying long-term in big rights deals. The days of ESPN with all-but-unlimited resources appear to be over; the world, and the world’s markets, will be watching how they do under this new set of circumstances.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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