Generally speaking, sports-media navel gazing is best avoided. Sports media members love to B.S. and gossip about the industry the way anyone in any industry tends to talk about where they work and who the work alongside, but the public at large generally doesn’t care.
ESPN’s layoffs on Wednesday, however, seemed to bridge that industry-to-public gap. While fewer people are paying for cable, and thus partially financing ESPN, by the day, it seems like everyone still has an opinion on the Worldwide Leader. Here are a few of mine, from mostly a college sports perspective.
1. Sports highlights have no value anymore. I can’t remember the last time I saw a major, can’t-believe-your-eyes play on SportsCenter before I saw it on Twitter. This is easy enough to understand, but think about what a change that is for ESPN. In 1995, if you wanted to devour the day in sports, you could either watch the 11 p.m. SportsCenter or wait for the next day’s paper to piece it together yourself from box scores. Guys like Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick were winning personalities, but they were also serving a vital function. Live in Lincoln but want to see what happened with the Milwaukee Bucks on a random night in February? Twenty years ago, ESPN could show you. With that function removed, or rather replaced by an eternal live stream of results and news, all that’s left is the personalities and that’s an uphill battle. I follow 899 people on Twitter, meaning I have 899 personalities beamed directly to me on every device I own any time I want it, and that’s just one social-media stream.
2. If you liked the expansiveness of ESPN’s college football coverage, that took a hit yesterday. A number of the conference correspondents people have gotten used to reading over the past five years or so were on the list yesterday. ESPN’s recruiting department also took a hit. What’s it mean for the person who regularly visited ESPN.com’s college football page. Less depth of coverage, and probably more . . .
3. . . . Trying to match the internet. You’ve seen this shift if you’ve watched any of the new personality-driven SportsCenter iterations, which go heavy on whatever viral videos are already online. Who does that serve? The person who isn’t on the internet 24/7? Generalizing here, but those people aren’t the people ESPN has to win back or win over. The chance, and it’s probably a remote chance, to at least slow the ratings/subscriber skid is with the people who have already seen those videos (or are maybe even creating them). And this extends to digital, too. When stories simply try to alert people to what’s already trending online, the only people who win there are those who haven’t seen what’s trending and that number, too, seemingly shrinks by the day. But that strategy seems far more prevalent on the television side, and it’s a losing battle. If what’s on the big screen in your living room looks more and more like what’s on the small screen in your pocket and one costs $10 a month and the other is free, it makes it a pretty easy decision for people.
4. Live sports are, I think, still considered the last great bet for appointment television, but yesterday’s news seems like the harbinger of major change as new rights deals are negotiated. ESPN isn’t paying today for NBA rights what it paid yesterday. It can’t. And if ESPN can’t, who can? I don’t know what it means for pro sports. I don’t follow them closely enough, honestly, but for college sports, and football in particular, it seems like the great cash influx of the conference-network era might be nearing its end. Not tomorrow, but maybe in a decade or so. There’s a reason Jim Delany wanted to get the Big Ten’s new TV deal locked in last summer. It delivered the massive payout — a foregone conclusion two years ago, but very much in question going forward — and bought the conference time to formulate its strategy for monetizing its content (the games) in this new era.
5. As many others have noted, carriage fees are the real cause here. For decades ESPN got $X a month from people who never watched the channel at all. It was desperate to hold on to that unprecedented level of cash flow — and then also sell ads against it for a second revenue stream — for as long as it could but those days are over. We’ve seen that people across all age ranges are willing to go to the trouble of hacking together two or three different streaming solutions to get the basic channels they want and save a chunk of money over a regular cable subscription. There’s a cord-cutters guide for everyone today available on, you guessed it, the internet. Here’s one from last fall that shows you that with some hardware and $40 to $60 a month you can probably watch every college football game you want.
There’s a notion in business and innovation circle that industry leaders need to be ready to make Sigmoid jumps. If traditional businesses follow a Sigmoid or S-curve, the people and business that flourish are the ones that jump off their current trajectory when it’s cresting and get on a new curve that’s on its way up. To put it another way, ride the growth phase waves and avoid the inevitable declines.
Yesterday’s news is the clearest evidence yet that ESPN waited too long.
The Grab Bag
- Nebraska may or may not have a player drafted this weekend, but executive director of player personnel Billy Devaney is optimistic about how the Huskers’ talent level is trending.
- Good read on Laremy Tunsil, the former Ole Miss offensive lineman who had his social-media accounts hacked during last year’s draft, and why there has been little effort to determine who did the hacking.
- Former Louisville quarterback Kyle Bolin, Lamar Jackson’s backup, is transferring to Rutgers and could figure in the quarterback competition in 2017.
- A group of CBSSports.com writers hold a draft for sports video games.
Today’s Song of Today