Disney announced yesterday that profits were up by 28%, but there was a disturbing nugget in the ensuing conference call with analysts.
Disney CEO Roger Iger had to fight off questions from those analysts about the future of ESPN, the cable sports giant that have seen subscriber losses, staff cutbacks and a general loss of brand sense over the last year.
No one is suggesting that ESPN is going away anytime soon, but the days of it dominating the sports landscape – and being profitable for Disney shareholders – are waning.
There are a handful of factors affecting ESPN, some of them the fault of the company and some not. The network had been the prince of cable TV, often charging cable companies the highest rate among all the channels available. That was because no self-respecting sports fan could live without it.
Now, as cable companies are seeing subscribers cut the cord, the number of ESPN subscribers is dropping because of that trend. In turn, advertisers are looking elsewhere to spend their money, such as in streaming services (Hulu), social media (Facebook, Twitter) and sponsorships.
ESPN was once the bully, but now it is becoming the weakling at the beach. It has laid off hundreds of workers, closed the sports and culture website Grantland, and found itself in competition with other sports networks, such as Fox Sports 1.
ESPN is its own worst enemy.
All those issues can be attributed to market shifts, and ESPN has responded with its own streaming app and continuing to dominate certain sports, like college basketball.
If you look deeper, though, you see that ESPN just simply isn’t all that important anymore. Ratings for SportsCenter, its flagship recap show, have lagged and individual sports leagues (such as the NBA, NFL and MLB) have their own highlight channels.
I was once a faithful viewer of SportsCenter, but I rarely watch it anymore. For one thing, the Internet (primarily, Twitter) has become timelier than SportsCenter. For another thing, I’ve grown weary of its analysts who add nothing to the sports conversation. They are simply boring. You have former athletes who are mind-numbingly predictable or you have the nut job yellers (Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless) begging to be seen as important.
ESPN used to know who it was for (and who it was not for). It had wit. (Think of the Dan Patrick/Keith Olbermann SportsCenter broadcasts.) It was akin to David Letterman in the stuffy sports world dominated by the big networks.
Now, it’s just…blah. Market forces are hurting ESPN. But it would help itself if it did the difficult work of finding out what makes it different in order to be culturally relevant again.