In 2004 I was an intern at my local newspaper The Record, based out of northern New Jersey. Those were challenging days for newspapers, as many people were getting used to the fact that they could get the same information in the daily paper online for free.
Newspapers weren’t getting the same advertising rates digitally that they were getting in print. Needless to say, the more people that got their news online, the more it hurt the bottom lines of papers like The Record. Fast forward 13 years later and television companies, notably ESPN in this case, are finding out what newspapers saw coming more than a decade ago: Just as the internet changed print media, it is now changing television in ways thought unimaginable just a few years ago.
It was a Wednesday morning in April and my timeline was buzzing. ESPN was the topic of the hour because they were in the process of laying off roughly 100 people, many of them on-air talent. This was shocking to a number of people as we are not accustomed to seeing faces we recognize on television suddenly being gone in an instant. Though it should be noted this isn’t the first time layoffs of this kind took place at the sports network. ESPN laid off 300 people in a cost cutting move mostly behind the camera in 2015.
Releasing on-air talent is usually the last resort of any media organization. Think of this as the equivalent of throwing out the fancy china or rare bottles of wine on a sinking ship. You only do this when you have no other recourse. For ESPN, that meant getting rid of people (and their salaries) to shore up a diminishing subscriber base.
It’s estimated that ESPN has lost almost 12 million subscribers since 2011. You combine that with the billions that ESPN spends in purchasing rights to televise the NBA, Monday Night Football, NCAA Football and others, and it becomes easier to see the tightening of purse strings. But it’s not just cord-cutters that ESPN is battling, it’s also up against the strongest television platform we’ve ever seen.
You know the names: Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, just to name a few. Throw in some more like HBO Now, Starz on Demand and Crackle, and you’re just scratching the surface. Hell, even Youtube is competition these days. What do these channels all have in common? They can all be streamed from your cell phone as you sit on the bus during your evening commute.
With all these options, shows like Sportscenter – and by extension, ESPN – don’t have the same pull they had even 5 years ago. Live sports was once thought to be impervious to DVR as watching the event 3 hours later wouldn’t hold the same appeal as seeing it live (that’s why commercials during the Superbowl cost so much) but in 2017, that hasn’t proven to be nearly as true. So what does all this mean for ESPN going forward?
Only time will tell honestly. In the case of my newspaper The Record, the paper moved out of the original building it was housed in for decades and cut a number of people in the process. But it survived and is still around today. ESPN will survive as well as even despite the dire numbers, there are still millions of people watching their shows and engaging with their content. It may mean more sponsors in the interim and figuring out how to get more from what is an increasingly mobile audience, but ESPN is already adapting with more personality driven shows like “The 6” with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, and late night Sportscenter with Scott Van Pelt. The ship may not be sinking, but it will have to chart a new course if it hopes to remain afloat.