It didn’t take long for ESPN to show the U.S. what the streamlined future of sports coverage would look like.
Just hours after ESPN announced about 100 layoffs of high-profile staffers — including Trent Dilfer, Ed Werder and Jayson Stark — the network had to host the NFL Draft in Philadelphia. There was a large replica of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that museum’s steps, there were cameos from celebrities like “Rocky’s” Apollo Creed himself and there was a sizable outdoor crowd that made the event feel more like a festival than a bonus event in ESPN’s NFL broadcast deal.
Is that really the kind of party you want to throw when you just kicked dozens of your most visible workers out the door? It is if you want to show viewers, readers and your parent company, Disney
that you plan on sticking around a while.
Big broadcast deals
ESPN’s money has been increasingly tied up in broadcast deals like the one it has with the NFL. Back in 2011, ESPN and the NFL reached a multi-faceted broadcast agreement that has paid the league $1.9 billion a year since 2014 and will continue to do so through 2021.
That deal includes everything from the rights to 17 “Monday Night Football” games a year to Spanish-language broadcasts. However, the value in that deal lies in the live sports and events coverage and, as ESPN has discovered in recent years, not so much in proprietary broadcasts like SportsCenter and the like.
ESPN itself notes that NFL viewership dropped 8% in 2016. “Monday Night Football” took the hardest hit, with 12% fewer fans tuning in. Nielsen estimated in December that ESPN had lost 9 million viewers since 2013.
Turner is hurting too
It isn’t as if other cable networks aren’t faring as poorly. The Turner channels rank a distant second and are similarly weighed down by rights deals. In 2014, for example, it teamed with ESPN on a nine-year deal that pays the National Basketball Association $24 billion for the right to air its games.
After Turner inked that deal, it turned around and almost immediately laid off 10% of its workforce, citing declining ratings and a wealth of digital-entertainment options. While my colleagues here at MarketWatch say that’s a sign of the broadcast-rights bubble bursting — and they may be on to something there — it’s also an ominous indicator of how sports broadcasts are going to change.
As ESPN learned during college bowl season, the average viewer would rather watch two teams with losing records play a bowl game than just about anything else on television at the time. Four years ago, the performance of live sports broadcasts spurred ESPN to pay Major League Baseball $700 million a year for eight years for both broadcast and digital rights. In all, ESPN pays more than $5.5 billion a year in rights fees.
And it doesn’t even get all of that to itself. It has to share NFL broadcast rights with the networks, baseball with Fox
and Turner, the NBA with Turner, and various college athletic conferences with CBS
and Fox. Does it make sense, then, for ESPN to employ hockey and Nascar analysts to break down sports that viewers have to go to NBC or Fox to watch? Does it pay to dedicate huge resources to international soccer when NBC, Fox and BeIN have cornered everything that isn’t pro soccer? Does it make sense to keep going to a personality-based broadcast formula from the 1990s when it’s clear that the sports themselves are largely what matters to ESPN’s viewers and its site’s visitors?
‘Inside baseball’ coverage
No, it doesn’t, which is why you’re going to see ESPN wring everything it can out of the coverage it’s already paying for. We’ve mentioned its commitment to the NFL’s Pro Bowl before, but ESPN has been enhancing coverage around events like college football signing day. It’s also already doing more with less, giving NCAA announcers including Beth Mowins and Jessica Mendoza spots in the booth calling football and baseball. It’s taking what were seemingly benign portions of its broadcast deals and transforming them into major events, shifting money to where fans and viewers are looking and away from where they aren’t.
There’s a chance that ESPN’s woes force athletic leagues and conferences to revalue what they’re selling. But considering that the NFL has already tapped both Twitter
Prime for streaming deals and MLB working with Facebook
and regional broadcasters on streaming rights, we’re guessing those prices aren’t coming down any time soon.
Retaining those live sports broadcasts is costly, but if you can squeeze more out of them for your money while giving audiences more action and fewer talking heads, that’s one way to salvage a win out of what looks like a huge loss.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.