As cable TV’s most expensive channel, ESPN has found themselves in the unfortunate position of having the big cable distributors offering discounted packages that didn’t include this sports channel. Many consumers have opted for these options, while others cut the cable cord entirely and use streaming services exclusively. This has led to ESPN losing 16 million subscribers over the past 7 years.
At the same time, costs have ballooned for ESPN. ESPN’s annual payments tied to live sports (NFL, etc) have more than doubled since 2013 to $4.7 billion. All of this has forced ESPN to lay off some 600 employees over the past few years, including some well-known hosts.
On the other hand, ESPN is also guilty of some serious self-inflicted wounds. Probably the most damaging has been the fact that they have been so slow in getting into the streaming TV business. Years of delays and detours in this area have significantly frustrated Disney, ESPN’s owner.
The second major self-inflicted wound has been the ESPN President’s focus on trying to grow the audience by spicing up shows with opinionated analysis and debate. This even led to one of their star anchors calling President Trump “a white supremacist.” This caused all kinds of in-fighting within the company, and uproar externally. ESPN’s President decided to keep the anchor who made the controversial comment only to have that same individual to use Twitter to urge a boycott of the Dallas Cowboy advertisers after the team’s owner suggested benching NFL players who staged social justice protests during the National Anthem.
Things even got more tense both within and outside of ESPN when one of their most prominent anchors indicated in a radio interview that ESPN’s policies were pushing away viewers and that the company was taking its eye off its basic business.
So what’s going on here? ESPN has basically had an absent landlord. The President should have been focusing on streaming content many years ago when the first signs that streaming television via the internet was becoming a reality. That simply wasn’t done. Secondly, ESPN should be all about objective sports reporting. He should have instituted a policy that made that very clear to all employees that any deviation from this policy would lead to termination.
Hopefully the new leader will do what any strong leader should do; tackle the future with gusto (get super aggressive with streaming) while keeping the company true to its mission (objectively reporting on sports).