Competitors chip away at ESPN

Commentary

Since 1979, sports fans have mostly known one and only one outlet for sports on television: ESPN.

In point of act, nobody really knew about ESPN during those first few years of its existence, but it quickly built a following and filled a niche. As earlier brand names, including ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” fell away or were gobbled up, ESPN expanded.

It became a cultural touchstone and the undisputed champ for live coverage and sports journalism. In addition, the four-letter all-sports network became a four-letter word to some. Still, it was literally unrivaled and, as a result, ultra successful.

However, in recent years, and especially in recent months, the landscape has changed.

ESPN remains the standard by which all-sports networks should be measured. It’s not about to go belly up, but the challenges that exist for it might be among the biggest in its history.

First, rivals exist that previously did not. They include CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports and NBC Sports Network. Each has chipped away in some manner at ESPN’s dominance in sports television.

In part because of those challengers, and in part because of bigger cultural changes, including “cord cutters” who have consistently moved away from cable TV, the number of households served by ESPN has dropped from more than 100 million at its height to 89.5 million this month.

Multiply that difference by the $7.04 per subscriber the network gets from everyone’s cable bill and ESPN’s loses in that area alone quickly reach $74 million.

That loss of households also factors into what ESPN can charge advertisers (based on number of viewers), how much it can pay for rights fees for programming and whether it can afford to retain talent. Arguments can be made that ESPN has sustained losses in all those areas in recent months.

Still, ESPN consistently adapts. It remains the leader in sports programming because of commitment and quality.

Its public relations types would quickly point out that September was ESPN’s most-streamed month in history, with 2.8 billion minutes of content viewed online. That’s 2.8 billion minutes in one month. And that’s awfully impressive.

Also, thanks to baseball postseason and the World Series, Fox Sports has enjoyed a primetime ratings bump over ESPN at times in recent weeks. Shows in other parts of the day are gaining slightly for Fox Sports, too.

ESPN does more than Fox Sports even thinks about, though. While Fox Sports is a TV network, ESPN delivers content across multiple platforms.

Just comparing the websites emphasizes the disparity, and that’s not a knock at Fox Sports or any of ESPN’s competitors. It’s just a statement of fact that self-proclaimed “worldwide leader” does, in fact, remain the worldwide leader.

It might not dominate the way it once did, and how it will succeed going forward might be different than what it’s done the past 37 years, but ESPN will remain consistently dominant and culturally relevant for sports fans for years to come.

Tuner tidbits

n Kudos to three NFL teams — the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles — for mocking recent media rules implemented by the league. Those rules prevented the teams from showing game highlights on their social media outlets. So, the teams either recreated plays on electric football games or found other media clips to relay the action. It was a savvy and fun way to respond to a silly rule that provided additional, unnecessary control over things for the league.

n It’s hardly been a surprise coming-out party, but the World Series has been a showcase for TV analyst John Smoltz on Fox Sports. His insights and preparation have shown through with consistency, making broadcasts stronger as a result. Also, the move to him in the booth this year has strengthened the network in the World Series by giving Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci roles reporting on the teams, and they’re both strong reporters and storytellers.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.