ESPN has recently seen plenty of notable exits, plus falling subscribers and ratings next to rising rights fees, so many have expressed understandable skepticism about where the company’s headed. According to those inside ESPN, though, those criticisms are flawed, and the idea of departing talent in particular hurting the company has been questioned. ESPN president John Skipper shot back at that idea with an ESPN Front Row piece in April, Highly Questionable host Dan LeBatard said “you leave, you’re going to get lost” that same month, and now His and Hers co-host Jemele Hill has chimed in with a claim that ESPN’s struggles are “a false narrative.” That’s what Hill said on the 20 Questions With Kyle Brandt podcast (Brandt is the long-time executive producer of The Jim Rome Show) this week. Here’s the clip: the part in question comes at 36:20.
Brandt asks “There’s an impression online amongst some of the sports media that ESPN, they’re losing people, they’re hemorrhaging talent, there are some high-profile employees who have left, there’s allegedly ratings dips, there’s even ‘ESPN is a sinking ship,’ this idea. What is your response when you hear that stuff, cause I’m sure you do?”
Hill responds “I think it’s a false narrative, honestly. The people that are leaving, Skip you brought up earlier, Mike Tirico, they’re not leaving for worse jobs. They’re leaving for incredible opportunities. Even if you want to throw Bill Simmons in there, and I know he left under much different circumstances, Bill is leaving to be at HBO, and if you believe that Hollywood Reporter story where he is making $9 million a year, who the hell wouldn’t leave ESPN for that, you know what I’m saying? And Skip, I’m not trying to be in someone’s pocket, but if that money figure is true, why wouldn’t he be leaving? So I feel like a lot of it is kind of ESPN with the bullseye on their back.”
She continues “And I get it; we’re a really big network, and really big networks make for really big targets. But I feel like that has kind of been way overblown. There’s a lot of really talented people here, and I’m not just talking about myself or my co-host, Michael Smith, and at some point, there was going to be a changeover. I think that everybody, a lot of people who left, even Colin Cowherd; he left, he’s in L.A., making probably a huge amount of money, he’s got his show, he’s got the lifestyle, he’s got all of that. So again, that’s a great opportunity.”
Hill then goes on to address the ratings: “As far as the ratings dips, I know that Fox is viewed as an emerging competitor to some degree like they’re trying to be. It would be one thing if we were losing customers and losing them to Fox. No, we’re just losing based off what is a trend in this country of cord-cutting. I feel like ESPN is as relevant as it’s ever been. It’s much like what happened in newspapers; you just have to figure out how to monetize a different delivery system, and I have full confidence that we will figure a lot of that out. But to make it seem like it is the Titanic is woefully out of reach and woefully out of touch. And that’s the thing, too; all those people who have been able to move on to those incredible opportunities, those opportunities don’t happen if they’re outside ESPN.”
Hill makes some valid points here: ESPN definitely isn’t the Titanic, and they’re still the dominant sports network. They still have countless talented employees and a large number of impressive and valuable rights packages, and competitors would love even their declining ratings. She’s also right that most of those who no longer subscribe to or regularly watch ESPN aren’t switching to direct competitors like Fox, she’s right that Bayless in particular left for what seems like an even better opportunity (financially at least), and she’s right that the platform ESPN provided them helped them get big deals elsewhere. However, her response doesn’t tell the whole story either.
That’s not really to take issue with what Hill says here. She delivers a pretty good, logical and level-headed spur-of-the-moment response to having your company called “a sinking ship,” especially given that she shouldn’t be expected to criticize her own company. However, there are a few other parts of this story that those of us outside Bristol can note a little more easily.
For one thing, ESPN’s subscriber issues are well-documented, and they’re dragging parent company Disney’s stock down despite that company’s wide range of other successes. For another thing, yes, there’s always been some exiting talent and turnover at ESPN, but rarely this much at one time, and it’s particularly interesting to see highly-valued, non-headache-causing people like Tirico and Bayless made better offers elsewhere. It’s also notable to see ESPN no longer the favorite in a lot of rights deals. For much of the last decade-plus, ESPN has been able to get much of they want in terms of people and rights; that isn’t the case any more.
ESPN is still the dominant player in the cable sports market, but that dominance is nowhere near the level it has been at, and there are questions about the company’s plans going forward. While Hill’s quite right that the company isn’t the Titanic, those noting that a few leaks are starting to appear aren’t wrong either. ESPN isn’t going anywhere, and they’re unlikely to even lose pole position in the cable sports world any time soon, but that doesn’t mean all’s smooth sailing.