I don’t know why but it turns out I love writing about how ESPN is the root of all evil on television. Take a look at the evidence — I’ve written about it here, here, and even here in an article dating back to July 2012. I love sports as much as anyone, but it seems like I rarely miss an opportunity to bash the most popular cable sports network of all time. So why stop now?
Our friends at DSLReports seem to hate ESPN as much as I do, and they’re among the many voices saying that ESPN will be making “notable” layoffs due to shrinking subscriber numbers. The network has been shrinking by 5-6% annually for years and its current subscriber numbers represent only about half of the households in America, despite roughly 94% of US homes having some sort of subscription TV service (whether traditional or streaming.)
What’s an incredibly overpriced sports network to do?
They seem to be open to slashing staffs and budgets, and while that’s not exactly inspiring confidence in the broadcast community, it’s a smart idea. ESPN is owned by Disney, and while I have to presume that Disney has a very, very large stash of cash from its many endeavors, it doesn’t want ESPN to be a money-loser. But cutbacks are only a short-term solution, and if the network cuts back too much, the quality of the programming will suffer.
The network has finally begun discussing the idea of a standalone service similar to HBO NOW where people without traditional pay TV can get the sports network if they wished. They have been saying for years that it wasn’t worth their time to do so, but with revenues shrinking they seem to be re-evaluating that idea. Personally I think the reason they didn’t want to do a standalone service was simple — no one would pay $8 a month for ESPN as an app, even though people pay that much and more as part of a bundle through their cable or satellite provider. However, the hard work of creating such a service seems to be done since there are “Watch” apps for most mobile devices and streaming boxes and the only thing that needs to happen is some sort of subscription process to replace the authentication that happens when you get ESPN from your pay-TV company.
I think it’s high time people start looking at the value (or lack of value) they’re getting from the ESPN channels. Obviously there are a lot of games being telecast but if you look at the whole package of English and Spanish channels, there’s also a lot of “fluff,” a lot of sports-related news that repeats over and over and you’d have to be pretty hardcore to watch that stuff 24/7. It’s true that channels like HBO don’t have winning content 24/7 either, so it’s obviously possible to build a winning network around just a few good programs. The difference is that HBO also includes a massive back catalog of programs and movies that are still appealing today, while with the exception of very few moments, yesterday’s games are nothing more than yesterday’s news.
Sports is a real-time, right-now business and I think the real issue here is that millennials are not real-time, right-now people. They’re on-demand people who want to watch carefully curated content on their schedules. Contrast the sheer density of a one-hour episode of Game of Thrones with the largely empty canvas of an NFL football game. At most, a game has 60 minutes of action, although in reality it’s more like 30, and that spreads out over four hours of real time. To say the least, that’s not millennial-friendly.
Now look, I like a good game as much as the next person, and I especially like the leisurely pace of baseball which forces you into an almost meditative state. But for young multitaskers, asking them to “endure” a game like baseball may be too much. Maybe that’s what ESPN and other sports networks are finally seeing. Color commentators can help fill in the gaps and have done so for decades but as the truly great announcers of the past give way to a new generation without the wit and wisdom of their fathers, they become less important and just more background noise.
I hope my articles and those on the rest of the internet help ESPN wake up and truly evolve itself into a lean, 21st century operation. I’d hate to see them go completely, but at the rate they’re shrinking it seems inevitable.