Right around the time the ink dried on a $15.2 billion deal to broadcast the NFL, subscribers began fleeing cable television in droves — not because of anything the Worldwide Leader did wrong, but because of secular changes in the way broadcast and video works. Phones, Twitter, and YouTube began instantaneously delivering highlights and entire games to fans, obviating the need for anyone to watch SportsCenter, or any other news shows, to catch up on what happened in sports, or even, in some cases, to watch live games. Terrestrial ad revenue never migrated online, and the revenue to be found there was largely eaten up by Facebook and Google, leaving little to pay those new ESPN.com reporters.
ESPN is still wildly profitable — the operating income of Disney’s media networks (of which ESPN plays the largest role) was $1.36 billion in the 2016 fourth quarter — but it’s less profitable than it used to be, and projects to be far less so in the future. With its latest cuts, ESPN isn’t just trying to stanch the bleeding and/or to be seen by investors as attempting to do so: They’re also laying out what the network will look like over the next five years and beyond.
Deadspin’s Kevin Draper wrote these words after ESPN laid off 100 employees, and they capture the essence of the problems at the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
While I’ve been following the ESPN story since the layoffs, I got re-interested again when I saw Jason Whitlock’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal. He suggested these layoffs represent a victory of Deadspin over ESPN, part of the “politics hurt ESPN” narrative.
As much as I like Deadspin, both as a reader and contributor, the editorial is awful. There’s no data to back up that ESPN’s left leaning politics has hurt the network.
The truth of ESPN is in those 202 words of Draper.
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