By David Mullen
On Sept. 7, 1979, the landscape of sports television changed. A live sports news show, presented on cable, was broadcast from Bristol, Conn. via the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, now known as ESPN. The telecast would evolve into the channel’s flagship program “SportsCenter.” It was broadcast to 1.4 million cable subscribers throughout the U.S.
In 2017, ESPN was in approximately 90 million U.S. households or more than 76 percent of U.S. households with at least one television set.
In April, ESPN lost half a million cable and satellite subscribers, despite the NBA and NHL playoffs and the baseball season underway. It is estimated that 14 million homes have abandoned the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” during the last seven years. What happened to the once in-home sports staple, now majority owned by the media giant Walt Disney Company?
ESPN has become unwatchable, in my opinion, because it is run by people that have no idea about sports. Consultants come in and tell the network robots — who are trying to keep their jobs — what people want to see. It has become the network of political correctness and personal opinion. And Disney has the resources to keep it alive.
The network has some wonderful feature programming like “30 for 30” and “E: 60.” But on “SportsCenter,” they unceremoniously feature the most annoying person in the sports media (save Skip Bayless) Stephen A. Smith, LeBron James, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Boston Red Sox, women’s softball played in front of empty seats and Euro Soccer, like that is all America cares about. “Joe Six-Pack,” the fan that built the network, is reaching for the remote in his easy chair. Except for an occasional Dallas Cowboys story, it appears that ESPN does not believe that there are sports being played outside of the Eastern Time Zone.
Barry Horn had a 30-year career at The Dallas Morning News, mostly as their sports media writer, until being let go in a budget crunching move in late March. “They [ESPN] only cover franchises. They pick the top 50 franchises and just cover them.” Because of social media, “‘SportsCenter’ isn’t relevant anymore,” Horn said.
He doesn’t believe the losses at ESPN are based on content. “The decline is that people are just giving up cable and satellite,” Horn said. “It’s crazy. I have two sons who both have houses in Dallas and neither one of them subscribe to cable or satellite. They just go ala carte. Cable killed itself with bundling. We all have stations on our cable that we will never watch in a million years. And we are paying for them.
“I am pretty sure that ESPN is up to $8 to $8.50 a month on our cable bill,” Horn said. “The only thing that draws viewers to ESPN is live sporting events. That’s it. Forget about the other shows. Nobody is watching those shows. I look at the ratings all of the time, and the ratings for those shows in Dallas/Fort Worth everyday are 0.0 or 0.1. But you are paying for ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network, Longhorn Network, ESPN Desportes [etc.]. They just bundle it all in, and the ratings on those networks are terrible.”
ESPN’s contract to broadcast Monday Night Football games is approximately $1.2 billion annually, albeit a contract much in favor of the NFL, which has become more focused on Thursday night, and Sunday day and night games. The live NFL broadcasts have helped keep ESPN somewhat relevant.
“It’s a lost leader,” Horn said. ”They don’t make any money on the NFL. But it is like Walmart. It brings you into the store. And Monday Night Football has lost all of its cache. They don’t get the top games anymore.” The ratings-grabbing Cowboys play just one Monday night game this season on Nov. 5 against the Tennessee Titans.
ESPN has seven television outlets — there is no “ESPN8: The Ocho” despite the reference in the film “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story” — a national radio network and multiple streaming apps. They decided to break up the highly successful cash-cow “Mike & Mike” morning radio show , featuring Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, which was simulcast on ESPN2 and sunk $50 million into a new morning show “Get Up!” in April featuring Greenberg, Michelle Beadle (late of “SportsNation”) and former NBA player Jalen Rose. The show takes place in a New York City studio which cost $35 million to build. The three personalities reportedly make a combined $15 million a year. ESPN is slated to lose $1 billion this year.
Many criticize ESPN’s political bent. Former anchorwoman Jemele Hill, who is black, called Republicans and President Donald Trump a bunch of “white supremacists.” What does that have to do with sports? Despite a two-week suspension, she urged for an advertiser boycott of the Cowboys because of her disagreement with owner Jerry Jones’ opinion of wanting players to stand during the National Anthem. Former ESPN president John Skipper, who resigned amidst a substance abuse issue, stated that ESPN policy is that the network is about sports news, and employees should “refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”
It was reported that ESPN’s new president, James Pitaro, said that he does not believe that the sports cable network is a “political organization,” and that their focus should be on the “sports fan.” He is not even close. The revamped daily “SportsNation,” featuring Cari Champion, Marcellus Wiley and LZ Granderson, is a three-ring circus where the anchors scream and talk street jargon over each other. It may be the most annoying half-hour on TV. Imagine the “The View” trying to break down a Golden State Warriors versus Houston Rockets Western Conference finals game.
Last year, ESPN laid off nearly 100 on-air and frontline talents in an effort to stave off massive losses. “I always thought that ESPN was genius,” Horn said.
“They had two revenue sources. They had advertising and they had subscriber fees. Don’t feel bad for ESPN. They still make a ton of money. But in the world we live in today, if you don’t increase your revenue, you are not successful anymore. It is like the newspaper business.”