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Few cable networks have ever been as consistently profitable as ESPN. Thanks to a wide variety of live sporting events and an army of the more famous athletic analysts on television, the Disney subsidiary has been able to demand the highest carriage fees from every cable company. Unfortunately for ESPN, however, the days of printing money may be coming to an end.
Ratings for ESPN’s flagship program, SportsCenter, have dipped ten percent. NFL Countdown is down thirteen percent, and combined with the lack of World Cup programming and NASCAR events, viewership is collectively down ten percent when compared to 2014. Some of that has to do with more Americans getting rid of their entire cable packages, but some of it also has to do with viewers simply choosing alternate programming. According to Bloomberg, NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 have both experienced double digit gains in the last year.
In keeping with the loss in viewership, ESPN has eliminated hundreds of jobs in the last year, and executives elected to part ways with some of the company’s franchise players, including Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Colin Cowherd and more. No doubt those personnel loses cost the network some viewers, but the decisions are all part of ESPN’s overall strategy of putting the brand ahead of any specific players, no matter how popular.
There will always be an audience for live sports. In fact, most of ESPN’s live sports broadcasts are actually up, but with the proliferation of highlights and clips across the Internet, SportsCenter’s permanent popularity is hardly assured. Executives seem to realize that too. Goofy, underrated and viral friendly anchor Scott Van Pelt has been pushed hard, as he’s seemingly seen as someone who can attract younger, more culturally aware viewers. Look for the network to find a few more personalities like him who aren’t afraid to tackle gambling and racier topics.
ESPN will ultimately be fine. Disney is too well-run of a company and they’re too far ahead of their nearest competitors to let the wheels completely come off. They’ll figure it out, but executives seem to finally be getting the message that something needs to change. Maybe it’s a streaming service. Maybe it’s a complete reinvention of SportsCenter. Maybe it’s an obscure idea no one has come up with yet. There are a ton of possibilities, but whatever that idea is needs to come sooner rather than later. If not, more jobs will be lost, more famous faces will be parted with and more articles exactly like this will be written. And that’s not in fan’s or the network’s best interests.