I remember being vaguely surprised when Keith Olbermann showed up as a political commentator. He had been, after all, a staple on ESPN. I ingenuously figured that the people of ESPN lived a monastic existence where they pored over our great nation’s sporting life and held long discussions about the semiotics of the Philly Phanatic and whether or not the USFL and spring professional football was a sign of a hopelessly decadent civilization. They were above and/or below politics.
I was quite the naif, I suppose. Of course the personalities on ESPN had political opinions; they were human beings, right? However, even after I was disabused of the notion that there was some sort of sportsmanly cloister up in Bristol, Connecticut, I still figured there would be some sort of line separating ESPN and straight-up politics.
It seems I was credulous on that account, as well. While the network has tried to tamp down on some of its excesses (we don’t hear so much Max Kellerman telling us all how playing the national anthem at games is inherently political, for instance, and Jemele Hill seems to have departed sports reporting for Olbermanville), it’s still likely one factor in a huge $1.44 billion loss that the network is likely to take with a new round of cord-cutting.
“ESPN has shed about 2 million domestic subscribers over the past 12 months, according to Disney’s newly released annual report,” Variety reported this week.
“ESPN’s total U.S. subscriber base stands at about 86 million, per Disney’s report for its 2018 fiscal year, which ended in September. That sub number compares to 88 million as reported in Disney’s fiscal 2017 report.”
Clay Travis’ Outkick the Coverage notes how much of an issue this is.
“Now the positive for ESPN is that the rate of subscriber decline seems to have slowed this year, but the negative is that since 2011 ESPN has now lost 15 million cable and satellite subscribers,” Travis wrote Friday.
“Those 15 million lost subscribers equate to $1.44 billion a year in lost yearly revenue that ESPN will never be able to book. (This is based on an $8 a month subscriber cost for ESPN multiplied by 12 months in the year.) Again, this isn’t just a one time yearly revenue loss, this is a loss in yearly revenue forever.
“Now every cable and satellite channel is losing subscribers — as dumb Twitter users who don’t read this article will immediately respond in my mentions — but the impact disproportionately impacts ESPN for two reasons: 1. the network makes far more in revenue off the cable bundle than any other channel so it stands to lose, by far, the most off the collapsing business model and 2. the network has guaranteed tens of billions in sports rights fee payments over the next decade and more to sports leagues.”
Theoretically, ESPN should be the linchpin of cable’s strategy going forward. It has live sports, supposedly the one thing that’s saving the traditional TV model in the streaming age. It also has the three major U.S. sports leagues — the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball.
At least for this week, executives at ESPN can crow about the ratings for “Monday Night Football.” For those of you who aren’t NFL fans, last week’s matchup featured arguably the two best teams in the league — the 9-1 Los Angeles Rams and the 9-1 Kansas City Chiefs — in a 54-51 shootout Rams win that saw the lead change roughly 842 times. It also saw ratings up 57 percent over the Week 11 matchup last year.
There’s also the fact that NFL ratings are up this season in total, albeit by a more modest 3 percent. That’s after several years of steep declines, however, which means they’re not anywhere near back to where they were.
And while good matchups and tons of offense are part of the reason behind the slight rise, there’s also the fact that there haven’t been as many national anthem protests this season. Of course, there are also still fans staying away — again, something that can be attributed to politics.
In terms of the NFL, ESPN definitely has issues. It’s paying $2 billion a year for “Monday Night Football” right now, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t proposition.
“Remember, it’s even worse than this too, it’s the ‘Monday Night Football’ deal which allows ESPN to show NFL highlights,” Travis wrote.
“Even if ESPN is outbid or can’t afford to purchase ‘Monday Night Football’ rights, the company still would be forced to pay hundreds of millions, if not a billion, just for the right to show NFL highlights at all.”
ESPN can’t necessarily control politics in the NFL. The network can control politics on its own programming — something it’s done a terrible job of. How much money that’s cost ESPN directly is anyone’s guess.
What we have is a number showing how much it’s lost in subscribers. ESPN was supposed to be what stemmed the cord-cutting trend. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening — and its politics almost certainly have played some role in that.
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