The ripple effect of ESPN’s mass layoffs is still being felt days later, leaving a vulnerable industry to grapple with its bleak future in a dying medium. It’s hard to overstate the seismic impact of one of the bloodiest days sports media has ever experienced, leaving “the mothership” a shell of what it once was. As alluded to by Stephen A. Smith, last week was only the beginning, the first domino to fall in a television landscape beset by streaming alternatives and social media, among other outside threats.
Watching ESPN unravel has been equal parts riveting and heartbreaking, presenting a fascinating portrait of a company in peril, beholden to corporate interests tasked with monetizing a vast content portfolio. As a Bristol alum himself, Dan Le Batard is uniquely equipped to speak on ESPN’s precipitous decline, admitting that even the shows he worked on were little more than time-killers, low-wattage placeholders meant to shepherd the network between broadcasts of live sporting events.
“Highly Questionable was just an infomercial that could have been any show in the world from 4:30 to 5,” said Le Batard on his DraftKings podcast, The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. “They could have chosen any show in the world and it would have been an infomercial that just got you to the next games. That’s what most of the programming on ESPN is. They’ve got too many hours to fill for much of it to be good. It’s too much landscape.”
What Le Batard is articulating isn’t a criticism of ESPN but rather a reality of a business stretched entirely too thin. In short, ESPN and other outlets have decided that quality doesn’t matter, placing a higher premium on rights fees and ad revenue than the product itself. Of course, that model doesn’t account for recent trends toward cord-cutting and, as noted by Le Batard, a general lack of enthusiasm for sports, particularly among the younger demographic with millennials and Gen Z’ers increasingly gravitating toward viral content.
“I would say it’s a number of different factors,” said Le Batard. “Beyond streaming and people living off the grid and getting away from cable television because they just don’t want to pay for [it], empirically, young people are less interested in sports.”
That speaks to a problem confronted by MLB, with commissioner Rob Manfred going to drastic lengths (pitch clocks, ghost runners, etc.) to make the game more palatable and interesting to younger audiences. Alex Reimer touched on this phenomenon in a recent column, noting how traditional pundits no longer carry the same weight as “content creators” like Jake Paul and Dave Portnoy, YouTube sensations with huge online followings.
While the loss of younger viewers is far from the only issue plaguing sports media, it’s a valid concern and probably one that isn’t getting enough attention.