Today, I’m here to put the “sports” back in TurtleBoy Sports.
FACT: ESPN is hemorrhaging viewers faster than a hemophiliac Christian Scientist with a severed artery.
FACT: ESPN has already done a round of lay-offs amongst it’s on-air talent.
FACT: ESPN hasn’t hit bottom yet.
Six months ago, the word around the water cooler for the sports fans at your office was that The World Wide Bottom Feeder was near collapse as a network. That was right around the time ESPN shed close to $100 million in salaries in a cost-cutting move demanded by concerns about the “bottom line.” Obviously, you aren’t cutting a number like that by laying off Jimmy from the mail-room; ESPN sliced big-check recognizable on-air talent. SportsChump and I broke that down when it happened.
Until recently, the World Wide Bottom Feeder had been a workhorse in the cable world. With a unique blend of live sports inter-cut with live action updates, an all-sports news format not done like “traditional” news outlets, and award-winning documentary content, ESPN became one of the most successful cable channels of all time. When ESPN hit the peak of it’s popularity in 2011, the World Wide Bottom Feeder was in the cable package of over 100 million homes.
But for every peak, there is a valley. ESPN’s subscriber numbers began their descent in 2015 when the network experienced a 7% drop in viewership from 2014. In 2015, their average viewership for any given programming was 2.15 million. 2016 saw an 11% dip down to 1.91 million viewers, and we have yet to see the end of 2017 and subsequently the year’s final numbers, it’s the safest bet in the history of safe bets that the numbers will be down significantly for a third straight year.
While ratings numbers can be manipulated; the World Wide Bottom Feeder did exactly that this year when it began counting the cable/satellite viewers in the same single total as those streaming on mobile devices or through other non-cable satellite providers, there’s no denying the drop in the hard dollar numbers. The bell cow for ESPN’s original programming is SportsCenter, and it’s numbers are off in an alarming way. SportsCenter netted $408 million in ad revenue for the first six months of 2016; the similar period for 2017 saw only $305 million.
That’s not a valley; that’s a crater. There aren’t too many business in this world that can take an approximately 25% hit to revenues and not have to take some drastic measures. That’s why there has already been one round of lay-offs, and all signs point to more coming.
A common narrative explaining this precipitous drop is that ESPN has become decidely political in it’s programming. That may or may not be the case, but to say ESPN’s decline and fall can be traced to a single cause is intellectual laziness of the first order.
1) “Cord Cutters”
The is the term for a new generation of television viewers who simply refuse to pay big-time cable fees. The number of American household which have “cut the cable” is growing every day, and there are an ever-increasing number of options for them; free over-the-air TV, inexpensive streaming options such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Fire, or simply opting out of live television altogether. Heading into 2018, ESPN finds itself chasing the curve in terms of penetrating the streaming market, which dramatically limits their ability to reach “cord cutters.” As the number of such consumers grows, and as the number of options available to them grows as well, ESPN desperately needs to re-evaluate how it will get its content in front of consumers.
2) The Quality of Its Programming
Realistically, the only thing ESPN produces right now that isn’t garbage is their “30 for 30” franchise. The episode “OJ: Made In America” enjoyed astounding success having won an Oscar for Best Documentary. The problem is that nearly every other ESPN venture has fallen flat, and the network’s signature sports news show SportsCenter has become virtually unwatchable.
I’ve already pointed out that SportsCenter’s ad revenues have plummeted, and that is directly attributable to it’s decline in viewership. The bottom line is SportsCenter is the foundation upon which ESPN is built, and it’s ratings have been in a slide for the better part of a decade. Since 2010, the ratings for SportsCenter are down 27% since 2010, and that’s not even the worst part. For sports television ratings the single-most important demographic is the 18-34 age group. Amongst that group, SportsCernter’s rating are off 36% in that same time. That kind of loss with no idea how to stop the bleeding any time soon simply isn’t sustainable.
There’s another demographic whose importance can’t be over-stated…me. Specifically, people like me’ middle-aged sports fans with disposable income. 18-34 brings eyeballs, but 34-55 brings money. Face it, I’m the guy who advertisers are aiming at when they buy time on the World Wide Bottom Feeder. You can say whatever you want about why ESPN is swirling down the bowl, but I’m pretty sure letting Scott Van Pelt call critics of the World Wide Bottom Feeder “so dumb that I can’t even pray for you” doesn’t help.
Of course, nobody should be surprised that somebody form ESPN would resort to insulting people; they’ve built half their network on it. Politics aside, ESPN clearly made a decision to emulate the most divisive format in television by mirroring the cable news networks. Pick which ever of them you wish, they all only serve to give a certain segment of the population a steady diet of what they want to hear. That’s why ESPN’s daytime programming is little more than people yelling at each other…thanks, but we’re all about get enough of that crap spending the holidays with our goddamn in-laws.
3) As Goes The NFL, So Goes ESPN
If the NFL catches a cold, ESPN gets double-pneumonia and winds up in intensive care. That’s because as a sports network, ESPN is dependent on the nation’s most popular sports league. When the numbers start dropping for the NFL, there’s nearly no way for ESPN’s to do the same. Just look at the similarity in numbers.
Ratings for ESPN’s Monday Night Football dropped 24% in 2016. To be fair, this isn’t so much ESPN’s fault as it is of the NFL and all of it’s corporate media partners. The NFL has a two-fold problem; at the same time the on-field product has become largely uncompelling it has hit market saturation. Not counting the MAC games ESPN shows all through the week in November, between “big-time” college football and the NFL, I get more football than I can actually watch.
That means as a life-long football fan, I’ve got far more choices for my viewing time then I ever had before. That also means that when the NFL locks me into a crap game on Sunday thanks to “regional coverage,” I’ve got a DVR full of college games that I didn’t have time to watch on Saturday. By the time I get to Monday night, I’ve seen as much football as I want, and if ESPN is giving me a game with a limited interest level, they have a real challenge getting me to tune in.
Let’s face it…for the most part, the NFL’s prime-time offerings are bore-fests more often than they aren’t. There’s so many reasons why the NFL is hard to watch now; we know most of them. You need a juris doctor to understand the league’s rule book written in Legal-ese. The slate of overly-complex rules means incredibly inconsistent officiating. Even making those calls takes too much time; an NFL game is now 14 minutes of actual action shoe-horned into three and a half hours.
4) A Dramatic Overpayment For Broadcast Rights
Remember the old fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs? That what ESPN thought live sports were in the sense that you couldn’t pay too much for thie broadcast rights because there was no ceiling to the return on investment. This is why the World Wide Bottom Feeder ESPN grossly overpaid for the broadcast rights for the NFL and NBA; they thought they was no down-side to that deal. That’s also why they locked themselves into those deals for the long-term.
The problem is the suits at ESPN fell in love with the viewership numbers for both those leagues when they were both trending up. They fell for the idea that nothing could ever touch the NFL’s popularity in America, and sweetened that with the belief the NBA is on the verge of a global expansion in terms of the market it reaches. That’s why they negotiated multi-year deals for the rights to both leagues. As of right now, the NFL is threatening to become a millstone around it’s neck, and the NBA’s global conquest isn’t going to happen soon enough to offset some uncomfortable realities.
- ESPN has really only succeeded at making NFL owners and NBA players uber-rich. The value of every NFL franchise surged after the the new television money rolled in a few years ago. Now I know ESPN isn’t alone in dropping it’s collective pants and opening it’s wallet to Kommissar Goodell, but they’re the ones who really got the unlubricated treatment from the NFL. ESPN is the only outlet viewers need cable to see, which means they have to have a rather spendy subscription to get one maybe-not shitty game a week, whereas NFL consumers can get over-the-air network NFL games available on Fox, NBC, and CBS el free-bo.
- ESPN dramatically over-estimated the future of cable versus it’s competitors. There’s a reason why the NFL is using those London games to experiment with alternative media for providing content like Yahoo and Twitter (which is also why the new SportsCenter on SnapChat doesn’t have the right to show NFL highlights, but that’s for another time). Ten years ago, the broadcast-media crystal balls were all having their “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment declaring the imminent death of over-the-air broadcasting. What they didn’t see coming was digital broadcasting where local over-the-air channels could put several channels in the same bandwidth. This is why television now is loaded with what Mrs. J-Dub calls the “old man” channels; ones that grab up the rights to vintage programming at incredibly low cost and fill those shows with high-profit margin advertising. The dirty little secret is most of the “old man channels” are owned by traditional over-the-air outlets. That means they get to have their football cake and eat it too, because they can let the “big” traditional network do what it will on Sundays with the NFL, and they can collect ad revenue from Channel 18.2 turning on the next generation to “The Rockford Files.” The bottom-line is over-the-air TV still has a vastly larger audience than cable and it’s the landing zone for “cord cutters.” This is one reason why Sunday Night Football (available for free on NBC) has eclipsed Monday Night Football (available for a fee on ESPN) in viewership.
- The numbers simply don’t work. The deniers like Scott Van Pelt can say whatever they want, but I don’t need anybody to pray for my ability to understand math. When the binomial equation has one set of parentheses with a decline in fee-paying subscribers and the other bulging with the exorbitant fees the World Wide Bottom Feeder shelled out for the NFL and NBA, you don’t need the super-computer at NASA to see that curve has nowhere to go but below the X-axis. Here’s how bad it really is. ESPN partnered with Turner Sports for the rights to the NBA for the nest nine years and for $24 billion. That means even if you don’t watch basketball and you have cable, you’re paying $30 a month to the NBA whether you want to or not. They can’t even wriggle out of this deal by shifting it to their over-the-air partner ABC until 2026. It’s even worse when you look at the deal with the NFL which is going to drain the ESPN coffers to the tune of $15 billion through 2021. In both cases, the World Wide Bottom Feeder chased itself up the money tree by spending far more than than anybody else ever had for broadcast rights. Now, they are really going to pay for it.
5) Coverage Bias
This doesn’t mean what you might think. This is all about to which events SportsCenter dedicates it’s time. Earlier I said SportsCenter is virtually unwatchable, and you need to understand what that actually means. I’m a diseased sports fan. Unlike the average American who might be a fan of one, maybe two sports, if there’s a sporting event on my television chances are I’m watching it. Olympic curling trials…I’m there. Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Steaua Bucharest Europa League soccer…I’m all over that. I’m one of seven Americans who could explain cricket to you.
That means I’m a degenerate sports fan, which also means you have to try hard to get me to call a show all about sports and the high-lights thereof “virtually unwatchable.” Where they had the greatest success in accomplishing this was in skewing the time spent on certain sports not based on fan interest, but rather on that which ESPN/ABC has the broadcast rights.
The best example of this is women’s basketball. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY watches this, and ESPN/ABC have the rating to prove that. But you wouldn’t know that from watching SportsCenter. In the summer time, ESPN will dedicate an inordinate amount of time to the WNBA, while ignoring large swaths of what happens in the landscape of baseball. Is it a coincidence that ESPN/ABC is really the home of the WNBA, and only gets the right to three baseball games a week?
Come the college season, the women’s game again gets an amount of coverage far outstripping it’s level of viewership. As far as the college game is concerned, there’s only three places in America where anybody gives a damn; Storrs, Connecticut; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Indiana. If you doubt that women’s college basketball has no national appeal, tell me who you had in your women’s bracket last year.
ESPN does the same thing to hockey. The World Wide Bottom Feeder has no broadcast rights for the National Hockey League, and it’s coverage reflects that. Granted, hockey is a regional sport, but that regional includes five of the top seven media markets in this country, and many other monstrous markets filled with transplants from that region. But ESPN’s hockey coverage is little more than a few minutes making Barry Melrose into a “Wal-Mart” version of Don Cherry (do a YouTube search for “Don Cherry” if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
While ESPN might think it is promoting the events to which it has contractual relationships, it’s actually doing the opposite. The only time SportsCenter makes the TV in my house is at 5 a.m. because Mrs. J-Dub and I both have day jobs, and scores and highlights are almost as good as donuts with our morning coffee. But ESPN keeps trying to give us those shitty plain cake jobs like they are Krispy-Kreme’s straight out of the deep-fryer. That’s why more often than not, the early-morning re-run of SportsCenter gets ditched for the NHL Network.
Think about that for a minute. If an all-sports network is losing a set of all-encompassing sports fans, how can it not be creating a strong sense of fan dissatisfaction across it’s viewership base? The answer is it has, and the reason why is both the NFL and ESPN have attempted to market outside their core strengths. Both of these multi-billion dollar enterprises have engaged in an exercise of luring the fickle casual sports fan by sacrificing the hardcore loyal die-hards. In other words, ESPN has lost sight of the fact that the beauty of sports is that they are inherently dramatic.
That means by injecting a political narrative to sports, ESPN is demonstrating that it either doesn’t understand that, or worse yet, from an organizational standpoint it doesn’t care. In any event, that’s not a good sign, because it means they are willing to continue a course which regardless of right, wrong, or indifferent, there are people in that organization who believe in politics over profits. Good luck with that.
6) Agenda-Driven Programming
Time for the elephant in the room…there’re really no denying the World Wide Bottom Feeder took a political tack. The problem isn’t which side they picked; the trouble is they picked at all, because once they did so, not only did they alienated a large portion of their audience, but they became monstrously boring.
Again, the Scott Van Pelts of the world can deny this all they want, but politics in America today is a divisive force for far too many people. You would have to be beyond blind not to see that, but the greatest blinding force known to man is the faux moral superiority the “social justice warrior” in which crowd wraps itself.
That’s why Van Pelt can’t see that calling his viewers “dumb” is bad for business. That’s why Jemele Hill spews such pure sanctimony such as “I would challenge those people [who she disagrees with] who say they feel suppressed. Do you fear backlash, or do you fear right and wrong?” Once people like these two get confronted with the hard reality, they either deny that it’s happening, or claim there’s nothing wrong with expressing “tolerance and diversity.”
Well, there is something terribly wrong with that. The definition of “tolerance and diversity” to the “social justice” crowd means complete and total acceptance of what they preach, or else you get called names or have your values questioned a là Scott Van Pelt or Jemele Hill. Not to mention, once you start cloaking yourself in terms of self-appointed “right and wrong,” you become as unworthy of listening as the fundamentalist religious zealots who want to damn me to hell because I don’t share their belief system.
I’m not a big fan of the “stay in your lane” mentality; I’m not into telling people what they can and can’t say. Rather, I would offer that if you are trying to get a message across, there’s a time and a place for that. I can’t tell you how many times of said on this blog and in my everyday life that sports is my refuge from all the stuff that every day life. That means if you want to engage me in a political lecture during my my sports time, you have zero chance of my listening. Judging by ESPN’s ratings, I’m not the only one who believes that.
Here’s the compromise. If ESPN wants to get all “Social Justice Warrior,” then don’t do it during SportsCenter. Create some news/politics programming with a sports-centric view and put in on Sunday mornings to compete with similar political programming on the broadcast networks during the same time. Face it, shows like “The Sports Reporters” and “E:60” are pretty-much already there, so why not embrace it?
The only change ESPN would have to make is taking “tolerance and diversity” back to it’s original definition. You can’t say a show is about debate when it features four people who agree. There’s a precise, scientific term for that kind of programming…boring.
That’s the biggest problem ESPN has with it’s decidedly political tack…I’ve heard it all before. As a member of the American socio-economic middle, I do things that the New American Left thinks are terrible. I have the audacity to have a job, put a roof over my head, and generally pull my own weight in life. That means I’ve been hearing for my entire adult life that everything that is allegedly “wrong” with America is my fault. Not only is there nothing new about that, but ESPN has no shot at getting me even to remotely put any stock in anything they say if all they are going to do is point a finger at me.