Live sports may be king when it comes to TV ratings, but it has become increasingly obvious that things aren't going that well for ESPN, regardless of the kind of sports being aired. The network reportedly experienced its worst month of subscription cancellations ever, and ESPN's downfall caused parent company Disney to miss its quarterly expectations for the second time in five years. Definitely not the teacher's pet at this point.
After the markets closed Thursday, the Walt Disney Company reported fourth-quarter earnings of $13.1 billion, which is around $400 million lower than its $13.5 projections. It's not as if they're hemorrhaging money or anything, but that's quite a reality check; and it's actually the second time it failed expectations in three quarters, so it's a recent problem. It's true that the company's film revenue in recent months has been limited largely to the B.O. take of Pete's Dragon, with the windfall from The Force Awakens, Finding Dory and The Jungle Book having dissipated. But it's Disney's cable channels that bring in roughly 29% of last quarter's revenue and around 47% of those profits, according to TheWrap. ESPN isn't such a juggernaut in that grouping, though.
In the month of October 2016, ESPN lost a whopping 621,000 subscribers who switched cable/satellite plans or dropped their plans entirely. That's more than the number of people that watch many of its analyst-driven shows. And even though this is the worst month for the network, it's not at all the first alarming exodus of viewers. In 2011, ESPN had 100.1 million subscribers, which is where things peaked, and now the numbers have dipped down to just over 88 million, with around 4.2 million of those 12 million subscribers leaving just in the last year. This is not a trend that appears to be going away, especially with more sports networks, websites and streaming platforms becoming available. (Perhaps the Hulu deal will help, but probably not that much.)
In the press release, Disney brought up a rise in programming costs and declining ad revenue as the main reasons for ESPN's downward spiral, and that makes sense. The network is losing money, but there has been no drop in costs to air the live events that ESPN shells out money for; in 2017, that total for licensed content spending will be $7.3 billion. But ad revenue is a problem for most networks, so it doesn't get special attention here.
But what about all of the major names that have left ESPN in the past two years? I doubt tens of thousands of people drop ESPN a week simple because Bill Simmons and Skip Bayless aren't around, but hearing the complaints against the network that those men (and others) have put out there paints a different picture. It seems like someone needs to identify and solve whatever the problems are before someone high up at the House of Mouse steps in to overhaul everything.
If you're still watching ESPN on a regular basis, what is it that keeps you coming back for more? It's the Top 10 on SportsCenter, isn't it?