ESPN Slips as Social Media Feeds Fans Clips
SportsCenter, the flagship highlights show, is retooling itself “They didn’t have a plan for this whole next generation of stuff”
When Ultimate Fighting Championship star Ronda Rousey was viciously knocked out by Holly Holm in a bout in November, the clip seemed like the perfect highlight to feature on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Yet by the time the program showed footage, many fans had already followed the fight live on Twitter and seen the clip on Reddit.
That’s a challenge for ESPN and SportsCenter, the flagship show introduced to pay-TV audiences 35 years ago. ESPN is the dominant sports outlet on TV and the Web, especially for livesports telecasts, and the single biggest profit contributor to parent Walt Disney. But competition from social media and other channels is eating into its audience for news and highlights, SportsCenter’s bread and butter.
“ESPN is so valuable because they have the most valuable live-sports
content,” says Liam Boluk, a media strategist at Jason Hirschhorn’s Redef, a media industry newsletter. “But the rest of their programming is under the same pressures as the rest of the industry.” So the network is revamping SportsCenter for mobile viewing and online sharing, as well as rolling out new editions.
In February, ESPN will present a 7 a.m. EST edition of SportsCenter to try to encourage viewers to watch on mobile devices on their way out the door, says Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president for news. “Our producers have spent a lot of time working with our talent to really think about which audience we’re seeing through the course of the day,” he says. The show is still relevant, he says, and fans want to watch—“it’s a matter of where they are and how they consume it.”
In September, Scott Van Pelt, a longtime ESPN anchor, began hosting a new midnight edition of SportsCenter to try to compete with late night talkshow hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. The show is experimenting with new segments, including one for bettors. A recent ad urging fans to “end your day on a highlight” shows a college student watching SportsCenter on a tablet from a fraternity house rooftop.
In a recent note to clients, Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research, wrote that it’s hard to fathom fans tuning in to SportsCenter to watch highlights when scores and footage are readily available online throughout the day. The sports leagues themselves increasingly have eaten into
SportsCenter’s audience by using social media to post game highlights and scores, according to Greenfield.
Viewership for live editions of SportsCenter—the network airs repeats throughout the day—is down 10 percent this year, according to ESPN, and down 13 percent for the pregame show Sunday NFL Countdown. Overall viewership has fallen 10 percent in 2015, though network executives say that’s really 4 percent if you exclude World Cup and Nascar events, which boosted ratings in 2014 and didn’t air this year. In addition to live games, ESPN airs talk shows and original programming such as the 30 for 30 documentary series.
Viewership at Fox Sports 1, a cable network owned by 21st Century Fox that debuted in 2013, is up 14 percent this year, with an average prime-time audience of about 286,000. At NBCSN, with an average audience of 274,000, viewership has increased 25 percent this year. Still, both networks draw only a fraction of ESPN’s 1,535,000, according to Nielsen data.
Live game telecasts have helped ESPN stay on top of the cable-TV landscape as the No. 1-rated network. In prime time, which is dominated by live sports, ESPN’s audience is up slightly over the past two years. Its Monday Night Football telecasts outdraw all other networks on that night of the week. ESPN also commands the highest monthly rate of any cable channel from pay-TV services, at $6.64 per subscriber, according to media research firm SNL Kagan. “Our relative advantage in the marketplace is stronger than it has been in a long, long time,” says Artie Bulgrin, the network’s senior vice president for global research.
In October the network eliminated about 300 jobs worldwide. Over the past year, it has parted with several on-air personalities, including Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons, who says the number of people canceling pay-TV service caught ESPN by surprise. “I don’t think they ever saw it coming,” Simmons said on his podcast in November. “They didn’t have a plan for this whole next generation of stuff.” An ESPN spokeswoman says Simmons wasn’t privy to internal conversations about the company’s future.
ESPN executives say they are prepared for the changing media landscape and are faring better than some entertainment-oriented channels. The network’s digital audience, which isn’t counted in the ratings, is growing, according to ESPN, and its WatchESPN app, available to paid-TV subscribers, has boosted the Monday Night Football audience by 1.5 percent. Earlier this month, the network unveiled live streaming on its main app, which alerts mobile viewers “when something great is happening on SportsCenter,” says ESPN’s King.
Advertisers are following ESPN’s audience online. Amplifi, a division of the ad agency Dentsu Aegis Network, which handles media buying for Microsoft, General Motors, and Home Depot, has shifted some spending to ESPN’s digital channels, according to Andy Donchin, Dentsu’s chief U.S. investment officer. “If you want to reach men, it’s kind of hard not to buy ESPN,” he says. “They dominate the sports marketplace. They used to be the 800-pound gorilla. Now they’re the 795-pound gorilla.”
The bottom line Live telecasts have kept ESPN the top-rated cable channel, even as its audience moves online.