ESPN: Why a media giant is struggling
ESPN once sat atop the cable-TV world as its most popular and profitable network, said Kevin Draper in Deadspin.com. But now it’s in big trouble. Last week the sports juggernaut laid off 100 staffers, including high-priced anchors “practically synonymous with the network.” The bloodbath set off shock waves, but actually shouldn’t be surprising. ESPN cut hundreds of behind-the-scenes people in 2015, and “it was only a matter of time before the axe swung down” on talking heads. Why? Until the early 2010s ESPN practically printed money and “spent flagrantly,” building a massive new SportsCenter studio, hiring hundreds of online writers, and forking over billions for live sports rights. But now ratings have declined 16 percent in a year, as the network bleeds subscribers. Americans are increasingly “cutting the cord” on cable packages—and with Twitter and YouTube delivering instantaneous game highlights, who needs SportsCenter? With $8 billion in subscriber revenues, “ESPN is still wildly profitable,” but it’s in a steep decline.
You can also blame ESPN’s “retreat into the fever swamp of leftist politics,” said Sean Davis in The Federalist.com. Viewers seeking NFL and NBA highlights have been forced to endure “knownothing loudmouths doing their best to make Rachel Maddow proud”—say, praising quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s boycott of the national anthem, or discussing how “North Carolina is run by racist, homophobic bigots.” The point is, “people watch sports as an escape,” said Dan McLaughlin in NationalReview.com. The more you insert polarizing political debates “into the spaces people reserve to crack open a beer at the end of the day and enjoy a ballgame,” the more likely they’ll find something else to watch.
“It’s mostly silly to blame politics for ESPN’s financial decline,” said Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.com. People who pay hundreds of dollars for a cable package of dozens of stations don’t cancel it purely because of irritating commentary on one. ESPN’s loss of 10 million subscribers mostly reflects how viewers consume media: 23 percent of U.S. households have opted out of cable bundles in favor of “à la carte” internet TV, or streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Sling TV. To compete, ESPN will probably have to create its own streaming product and downsize. But the network isn’t doomed. Americans are moving away from cable, but not “toward a future where they stop watching sports on television.”