ESPN is in the midst of massive layoffs. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)
ESPN’s broken business model is the driving force behind this week’s massive layoffs. The WorldWide Leader has lost 10 million subscribers over the last five years and is paying exorbitant rights fees to broadcast the NFL and NBA. Rising costs combined with declining revenue isn’t a sustainable business model.
That harsh reality makes it appear as if ESPN’s plight was inevitable. Cable subscriptions are way down in the era of cord-cutting, meaning all networks are drawing from a smaller audience pool. There’s fewer eyeballs to go around.
Despite those troubling trends, ESPN is still available in more than 88 million households (as of December 2016). Even though its parent company, Disney, ordered executives to trim payroll, ESPN possesses more resources than most other media conglomerates. They have the tools to turn it around.
But their lackluster programming is preventing them from doing so.
Given the vast number of reporters who have been canned, it’s apparent ESPN is moving further away from news and veering more towards opinion. While that may cause haughty media critics to bemoan the direction of the industry on Twitter, it’s the right call. In today’s world, where information and highlights can be accessed instantaneously on social media feeds, there’s less of a thirst for news-based programming. Comcast SportsNet New England went through a similar overhaul earlier this year, in which it downsized its news department and expanded its nightly debate shows.
The problem with ESPN is, their studio shows don’t offer much in terms of disagreement or provocation. Outside of “First Take,” which now features Max Kellerman doing a poor man’s Skip Bayless impersonation alongside Stephen A. Smith, few of its programs showcase hosts with varying viewpoints. The exception is “Pardon the Interruption,” but ratings for the iconic program are down by more than 10 percent in comparison to last year.
On a recent edition of Sports Illustrated’s media podcast with Richard Deitsch, James Andrew Miller, who authored “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” predicted the network’s new weekday lineup. It includes:
6:00-7:00 a.m.: Re-airing of west coast “SportsCenter” with Neil Everett and Stan Verett
7:00-10:00 a.m.: Mike Greenberg’s new morning variety show
10:00-12:00 p.m.: “First Take”
12:00-1:00 p.m.: New show with Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre
1:00-6:00 p.m.: Afternoon programming, including Dan Le Batard’s “Highly Questionable,” “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption”
6:00-7:00 p.m.: “SC6″ with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith
Evenings: Live sporting events
11:00 p.m.: “SportsCenter”
Midnight: “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt
The rumored Greenberg morning show seems especially problematic. Given all of the options for morning TV, including partisan cable news programs drawing record numbers in the Trump era, it’s difficult to find a constituency for Greenberg’s inoffensive style. The networks –– CBS, ABC and NBC –– already have the market cornered on breezy morning talk. It seems unlikely the milquetoast anchor would be able to offer anything different.
Most of the other offerings, such as Jones’ possible collaboration with Torre, feature hosts who are hold the same worldview: progressive east coast liberalism. In a recent memo, ESPN management seems to grant commentators more leeway to talk about polarizing social issues.
“Outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines,” the memo reads. “The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions — such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management.”
Considering almost every political issue can be tangentially tied to sports –– just discuss athletes’ and coaches’ reactions to news topics –– that means ESPN opinion makers will probably only provide more social commentary from here on out. In doing so, they’ll risk further alienating a broad section of sports fans.
In right-wing corners of the Internet –– hello, Breitbart! –– ESPN’s seeming liberal bias is often chalked up as the No. 1 reason for the network’s decline. While that’s a false assertion, it’s likely somewhere on the list. Americans are so polarized these days, their viewing habits largely depend on political affiliation. Pew Research found 40 percent of Donald Trump’s voters, for example, watched Fox News as their main news source. Meanwhile, only three percent of Hillary Clinton voters said they turned to Fox first.
There’s nothing wrong with embracing politics, but outside of Will Cain, who occasionally appears on “First Take,” ESPN doesn’t feature any high-profile conservative commentators. That means their shows lack balance.
Perhaps the most shining example of this imbalance is the new “SportsCenter” offering with Hill and Smith. Even though “SC:6″ may have been one of the most heavily promoted shows in history, ratings are down 12 percent in comparison t0 2016. The reaction to the program has been harsh, too. Yahoo finance writer Daniel Roberts tweeted this week roughly 50 percent of the 3,000 comments he received on a story about ESPN’s layoffs were people pleading with the company to cancel “SC:6.”
There’s little ESPN can do to change the challenging business climate. But they are in control of their programming. And right now, their shows fail to appeal to a broad ideological audience. Racial and ethnic diversity is important, but diversity in thought is even more vital.