Is ESPN about to crumble?

So in the past I haven’t been so kind to ESPN. I’ve wondered before if pay-TV’s most expensive “basic” network would destroy the whole industry, and yeah I’ll admit that I love to bring up the fact that as much as 25% of your basic cable bill goes straight to what I call “the Disney-Industrial complex.” (ESPN is owned by Disney.) It’s been a huge moneymaker for decades, because pay-TV companies believe that people won’t subscribe without it.

Our friends at DSLReports are kind enough to tell us about a recent survey that says over half of people would drop ESPN if their cable bill went down by $8 a month. The other side of that is people seem to think $8 is a good price for ESPN, when it’s likely that they’re paying up to $20 when all the ESPN channels and the WatchESPN app are paid for. Certainly there’s enough evidence to say that ESPN would charge $20 as a standalone service or else they would lose money.

Personally I think there’s plenty of evidence to say that ESPN is about to fall off its high horse. I reported to you about six months ago that their subscriber base dropped for the first time in recent memory, and that’s a sign of things to come. ESPN is very closely tied to traditional cable TV and does not stream its signal to non-subscribers. As pay-TV moves more and more toward a streaming and over-the-air model, ESPN will have tough decisions to make. Obviously they would want to start a streaming-only version of their channel but they simply may not be able to get the high rates they want.

ESPN started in the early days of cable television when there simply were no other sports channels. Today there are roughly 30 regional sports networks, plus a dozen or so other “basic” sports channels. Add to that the league packages like Center Ice, Direct Kick, League Pass, Extra Innings, and GamePlan, and you’re talking about potentially 80 channels of sports at any given time ranging from golf to soccer and everything in between. Yet, the perception is that ESPN is the “must-have’ and everything else is optional.

The truth is that ESPN carries far less actual sports content than it used to and while it’s great, you’re simply not going to find the games you want there. No matter what you follow, if it’s a “major” sport it’s going to have its own channel lineup. ESPN has Monday Night Football, but has recently decided not to bid for Thursday Night Football. Pundits see this as a cost-cutting move and a sign that ESPN’s spending is out of control, but I think the network is losing the chance to really monopolize midweek sports and I think they’ll just suffer in the long run. Disney has enough money that they could run ESPN at a loss for a while just to keep their past dominance alive, and I think they should.

Or, if ESPN is really scaling back to the point where it’s “just another” sports network, they need to be prepared for pay-TV companies to negotiate hard when it comes time to renew contracts. It’s believed that most “basic” cable channels cost pay-TV companies $2-$3 per subscriber per month, while the commonly quoted cost for ESPN (just the one channel, not the whole family of channels) is $8 per subscriber per month. Maybe it’s time to look at ESPN as as basically being the same as any other sports channels and charge accordingly. Or, as I said, maybe it’s time to offer it standalone for a reasonable price.

I know this, and I’ve said it before… I love sports as much as anyone but I don’t watch ESPN. That’s because I don’t place a lot of value on talking heads and a screen full of crawling words. I’d rather watch the game than any of that other stuff and when I’m looking to watch a game, I’m usually looking somewhere other than ESPN.