When I was in college, the channel was set to ESPN pretty much the whole day. We’d watch the morning SportsCenter as we got ready for class. We’d come back between classes to check in on the strongman competition. That evening we would catch up on that day’s sports news with Stu Scott. Maybe that night it would be Duke/North Carolina. Or Cardinals/Cubs. Or heck, we’d watch Maryland play Rutgers in lacrosse.
The personalities were like extensions of our friends we grew to know and love. Stu Scott. Dan Patrick. Trey Wingo. Linda Cohn. Bob Ley. Karl Ravech. John Anderson. Scott Van Pelt. There were jokes and sometimes unnecessary distractions, but at its core, ESPN was sports, and it was our source of sports information.
See, we didn’t have the internet, well not as we know it today. We could log on, but it was a dialup modem, on my computer, the only one in our house. The university gave us internet access, but only 30 minutes at a time. Load times were slow - don’t even think about playing a video - and there were only a few decent websites, ESPN.com being one of them. Required reading at that time included Peter Gammons, Rob Neyer, and Bill Simmons.
Yesterday, ESPN laid off about 100 employees, most of them reporters. Among the names were former Royals player Raul Ibanez, longtime basketball analyst Len Elmore, and baseball writer Jayson Stark, who had been there 17 years.
Many conservatives were quick to blame the politicizing of sports for ESPN’s troubles, and perhaps a few viewers were turned off by statements like Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY award, but it is hard to imagine they dropped their subscription in droves over it. After all, FS1 isn’t exactly reaping the benefits of ESPN’s demise. Others blame ESPN’s tilt towards substance-free debate-style shows like First Take, Highly Questionable, and Pardon the Interruption, but the low costs of these shows and their decent ratings probably do more to keep the network afloat (note that those shows were left pretty much untouched by the layoffs).
The big problem, is that cable subscriptions aren’t increasing anymore, and in fact, 12 million people have dropped a cable package carrying ESPN in just six years. This actually leaves them ahead of overall cable subscriptions, so unless Cartoon Network has been turning off viewers with a liberal agenda, it seems unlikely that politics is much to blame for ESPN’s woes.
When you consider that ESPN still has about 90 million subscribers, that kind of drop may not seem like that big a deal. But the network has overextended itself in costs, obligating itself to some $8 billion in programming costs in 2017, as it overpaid sports leagues for the rights to carry games. I mean, they offered millions of dollars to Skip Bayless just last year, and now they can’t pay 100 reporters?
The future of ESPN may not be on cable, as more and more people cut the cord. The NFL just signed a deal to stream games on Amazon, ESPN may follow. Or you may watch SportsCenter on Netflix. Or Youtube. That is, if there is even a reason to still watch SportsCenter. When I was in college, getting scores off the internet was a pain. Today, we can just reach in our pockets and press a few buttons on our phone. I can watch Royals highlights whenever I want. Why wait til the 10 p.m. SportsCenter and sit through half the show waiting for the one clip I want to see?
Sports seems more popular than ever, but it seems like sports media is having trouble capitalizing on it. The demise of print media has been well documented, but digital media has its own set of problems (except SB Nation, right? Right?) Even Twitter, the app more and more of us are tuning into to get our news and even video highlights, has yet to turn a profit. Where does that leave the future of sports media?
The answer, sadly, may be with teams themselves. We have seen MLB and the NFL create their own networks, as have many major college sports conferences. Players have bypassed the traditional media by creating The Players Tribune, giving them a voice without the filter of the media. In some ways, these have been good developments, giving sports-hungry fans greater access. But the pitfalls are obvious - if a reporter is on the payroll of the league or team it is covering, can that reporter give us objective, unbiased news?
The world is changing in a lot of ways due to technology, and overall we will likely be the better off for it. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of disruption in the meantime, in how we consume news, and more personally, to the lives of those in media affected by layoffs, furloughs, and reduced roles. The sports media landscape is changing and I hope there is still a role for good reporters like Jayson Stark. Or Rustin Dodd. Or even stupid bloggers.
How do you get your sports news? How would you prefer to get it? What kind of sports channel would you create?