As ESPN is telling advertsers to air their commercials on its various platforms at its upfront presentation today, it goes into the 2016-17 season as it has to find ways to stand out in an era of mobiles, tablets, smartwatches, connected TVs. With ESPN telling viewers that watching sports live is better rather than watching Netflix or being on social media, observers feel a way to do that is to focus on tentpole sports like baseball, basketball and football and leave the global sports to the other networks.
Over the years, ESPN has aired events like the World Cup, Australian Open, French Open, Open Championship, Wimbledon, World Figure Skating Championships. It has lost the World Cup to Fox, French Open to Tennis Channel and figure skating to NBC. It also bought the rights to cricket events, making that available exclusively online.
And as subscribers and viewership have dropped due to cord cutting and other factors, it has made investors nervous. But noting its core audience, some analysts are saying that ESPN should forget about the global sporting events and focus on what it does well, college football, college basketball, baseball, the NBA and the NFL:
Its core audience and advertisers turn to the network for football, basketball, and baseball. Those are the rights it needs to hold on to. Instead of land-grabbing all the contracts it can, and over-paying in the process, ESPN should cement its standing as the hub for major US sports.
David Gaines, chief planning officer at the media agency Maxus Global, said he’s looking for the network to reaffirm this position at the upfront presentation tomorrow. “ESPN would regain some credibility by saying, ‘This is what we stand for—our reason for being within that sports-media ecosystem is big tentpole US sporting events,’” Gaines said. “I’m interested to see this clarity and ownership as part of the way they talk about the next 12 months.”
So can ESPN find its way by focusing more on the hardcore sports that Americans like to watch over global events? Perhaps. It has done this before in the last decade by shifting its focus away from airing sports that didn’t do well like horse racing and figure skating to more baseball and college sports. The ratings went up and it led ESPN into an era of dominance.
Now as it looks to the future, should ESPN refocus again? Some industry analysts think so and as it has contracts with MLB, NBA and NFL locked into the next decade, it hopes it has some hedges to keep viewers in the fold. And perhaps allow the others to focus on the other sports.