ESPN is a Reminder That on the Market, No One Is Too Big to Fail
This week ESPN announced they were laying off 100 on-screen personalities and writers, the latest round of staff cuts for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports. Some of the issues plaguing ESPN are obvious, they are first and foremost a cable channel at a time when Americans are increasingly deciding to cut the cord. A bigger issue, however, is that they simply aren’t delivering a good enough product to maintain their domination in sports media. As such, their current struggles serve as a useful reminder of how even Big Business can face market pressure when they take their customers for granted.
Ever since its inception in 1979, ESPN has dominated their industry like few companies ever have. While television is full of networks in constant competition with their rivals for eyeballs, ESPN has held almost a complete monopoly over sports fans. Channels like Fox Sports (now FS1 and FS2) and the late CNNSI have tried to leave their own marks, but the letters E-S-P-N are synonymous with sports in the US.
ESPN today is famous for their broadcasting of sporting events, but starting out the channel relied largely on the success of in-studio content like SportsCenter. By packing highlight reels with engaging on-screen personalities, ESPN created an entertaining product that became a must watch, even for fans who had watched the games live. SportsCenter didn’t just become a marquee brand for the network, but became the model in which all highlight shows are based.
Unfortunately, the ESPN model has increasingly moved away from charisma and humor and more to big names and “hot takes.” ESPN’s NFL analysis, for example, became increasingly reliant on former players. While it’s certainly understandable for any network to desire recognizable talent, playing the game on Sundays is very different than offering useful analysis. A recent piece profiling Hall of Fame QB-turned ESPN analyst Steve Young highlights how little effort some former jocks put into their commentary:
When he works a Monday Night game for the network, he spends no more than an hour or two at the stadium preparing his commentary, he says. ... Once the game starts he barely watches the action.
Even worse than ESPN’s bullpen of former players is the network’s increased reliance on trolls. When the network introduced Pardon the Interruption in 2001, followed a year later with Around the Horn, it marked a shift in original content toward a more opinion-driven format. What made these original shows work was not simply that it captured an element of “bar talk” debate sports fans find relatable, but that the personalities involved were worth listening to. PTI featured prominent national sports writers, while ATH offered a more diverse selection of newspaper pundits from across the US. Perhaps most importantly, the shows were a secondary outlet for their work, with most of the positions they brought to viewers already being fleshed out in their columns.
This changed in 2004 when ESPN hired Skip Bayless to be a full time debate show pundit. Bayless, and his eventual sparring partner Stephen A. Smith, became the embodiment of ESPN’s new conflict-focused content. “Embrace Debate” became a slogan of the network, and knowledge and analysis was prized less than scoring a controversial opinion that would trigger social media outrage. Bayless seemed to relish in one upping himself in absurdity, and became such a controversial figure in network headquarters that executives had to ban colleagues from criticizing him.
Bayless is now with FS1, but his style at ESPN remains. It was perhaps inevitable that more personality-driven content would lead to politics increasingly seeping into the network. ESPN even released official guidelines codifying political commentary as “appropriate” outside of reporting content.
Meanwhile, while ESPN has been embracing debate, the sports marketplace has changed. Websites, podcasts, and streaming services now provide a litany of specialized content. Sites like Bleacher Report and Rivals.com delivers team-specific content and analysis, while sites like Rotoworld have become an aggregation hub for league-specific news. Video commentary and analysis can be found throughout the internet, from NBC’s Profootballtalk.com website to Draftbreakdown.com, which allows viewers to watch game tape of college players entering the NFL draft. Meanwhile streaming services like Amazon and Hulu are seeking to add live sporting events to their current subscriptions, with Amazon signing a deal this year to syndicate Thursday Night NFL games.
While no single outlet has risen to challenge ESPN’s crown as the America’s leading sports outlet, the collection of alternatives has made it so ESPN is no longer the “world’s most valuable media property.”
And this is precisely how the market is supposed to work. It doesn’t matter how big a company is, if a network begins to take its customer base for granted and is unable to innovate with the times, they will lose out to upstarts who can better respond to the desires of consumers.
When writing about the market economy, Ludwig von Mises always stressed the power consumers wielded. As he wrote in Bureaucracy:
The consumers are merciless. They never buy in order to benefit a less efficient producer and to protect him against the consequences of his failure to manage better. They want to be served as well as possible. And the working of the capitalist system forces the entrepreneur to obey the orders issued by the consumers.
ESPN became a dominant force in American society by giving consumers the sort of content they desired. Doing so, they built a brand beloved by sports fans around the world. But all the advantage and good will they had built over decades isn’t enough to shield them from the realities of the market.
These layoffs and other changes may help ESPN’s bottom line, but the network will never regain its dominance until it returns to what built it up in the first place: giving consumers the sports content they want.