The Long, Slow Death of ESPN - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Long, Slow Death of ESPN
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ESPN reporter Lisa Salters interviews quarterback Drew Brees during the Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida on Jan. 26, 2020. (Steve Jacobson/Image of Sport)

So our readers will know, for the near entirety of your author’s life, pro and college sports have been an obsession.

Looking back on it, probably an unhealthy one. Age and maturity and the vicissitudes of 21st-century life are sharply curtailing the fever, though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully quit LSU and the Saints (though a possible change in geography might do it; I used to be a Lakers and Yankees fan as a kid and couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about either team now).

Two things have done it for me. First was the woke explosion, the prime promoter of which was ESPN. When that network’s off-field sports shows started pushing the racial angle nonstop, and then proceeded to pressure sports leagues and other corporate actors to join in the transparently false Black Lives Matter narrative, enough to nudge young, semi-educated, and impressionable twenty-something male athletes to poison their personal brands with divisive racial rhetoric, it had the same effect on me that Hollywood’s woke explosion had.

If sports weren’t an escape from the daily fight of politics and business, if that fight was now infused into sports, then I was happy to disengage.

LSU’s football team skipped practice in August of 2020 to conduct a Black Lives Matter march through campus. I haven’t been to an LSU sporting event since and I’m not sure I’m going back. I’ll still watch a game on TV if I don’t have something better to do, but it struck me that living vicariously through college kids who couldn’t give a damn about me or people who look and think like me — people who have for a long time bought into the prospect of a colorblind society such as the one Martin Luther King proposed in his “I Have a Dream” speech — was not a great idea.

And what the BLM gang, including his own teammates, did to Drew Brees, and then what Brees felt pressured into doing to himself, was enough to greatly dampen my ardor for the Saints.

There’s a great scene from the classic film A Bronx Tale when this subject comes up, and it stuck with me a little, though not enough to switch me out of Sports Fan Mode at the time…

But then it crystallized with something Rich Cooper said. Here’s a recent iteration of his message…

Cooper grew up in the U.K., where the major obsession is soccer, and I imagine that makes it a lot easier for him to switch off sports. Soccer might be the most boring human activity imaginable, which is one reason why the fans seem to specialize in drunken brawls at the games (gotta pass the time some way, right?).

Still, the fundamental point is spot-on. Putting on somebody else’s jersey, which I can thankfully claim I’ve never done, and getting all excited about someone else’s pursuit of excellence while ignoring one’s own, is at best a distraction and more properly understood as a waste of time and energy. As a friend noted, this is pure bread and circuses — and for a time, when our society was in a healthy place two decades or so ago, that would have been tolerable.

It isn’t anymore.

And I am not alone in coming to this realization. Clay Travis at Outkick had a piece Monday outlining that ESPN, which given its corporate woke bent is perhaps better described as Disney Sports, is in a subscribership free fall with neither a plan nor a viable escape route to avoid inevitable bankruptcy and corporate death.

Last year ESPN lost eight million cable and satellite subscribers, finishing 2021 with around 75 million total subscribers. That eight million subscriber loss, an average of nearly 22,000 people a day, represented 10% of ESPN’s overall subscriber base and accelerated a calamitous decline from over 100 million subscribers just over a decade ago.

The loss of those eight million subscribers will cost the network roughly a billion a year in recurring revenue across all ESPN network properties.

The number, which was released by the company itself just before Thanksgiving in late November of last year, escaped most major media attention, despite representing the largest yearly subscriber loss in ESPN history. I flagged it back then to write about, but waited until now because I was intrigued to compare the interplay between ESPN’s linear cable channel and the ESPN+ streaming service it has also launched, which ESPN is claiming will save the company.

I’ll get to that new streaming service in a moment, but I’ve been writing about ESPN’s major cordcutting issues for years. In fact, back in 2016, six full years ago, I forecast that ESPN would finish 2021 with 75 million subscribers.

At the time I made that forecast almost no one in sports media believed cordcutting was going to be a threat to ESPN’s future business. You can read my article from 2016 here.

Six years later, if anything, ESPN’s future as a standalone cable entity is even more dire. Even if most still haven’t realized it yet. Why? Because streaming isn’t going to save ESPN’s business either, no matter how much bragging to the contrary company executives attempt.

Travis’ piece sticks solely to the math of ESPN’s situation and doesn’t even address its cultural aggressions which have alienated a large part of its core audience, which is one reason why almost none of its off-field programming draws much of a viewership at all anymore. He’s right that a huge chunk of non-sports-fan cable subscribers is propping up ESPN’s numbers given its legacy position as a basic cable staple, and at around $10 per month per subscriber, it’s one of the most — perhaps the most — vulnerable entities to cord-cutting.

And he’s also right that the math doesn’t work in trying to morph the business model from that of a cable network to a streaming service. There just isn’t enough of a consumer dollar out there to replace ESPN’s peak cable revenues with streaming subscribers.

Travis says ESPN’s future is probably going to be that Disney unloads it on Amazon or Apple, who can absorb its losses in exchange for getting the rights to all the big sports leagues that ESPN holds: NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, college sports, Wimbledon, NASCAR, and so on.

But what he doesn’t note is something that I expect is inevitable: with people cutting the cord and moving their viewership to streaming, at some point it’s going to be the leagues themselves, rather than providers like ESPN or even NBC Sports or Fox Sports, who are offering their games via their own streaming platforms, assuming the ESPNs of the world can’t justify the massive rights fees they’re paying now.

Which is a worthwhile assumption given the literal decimation of ESPN’s subscriber base last year.

And as Travis notes, without having those big sports leagues and the big audience their games bring, what exactly does ESPN have that’ll hold the subscriber base?

No, Stephen A. Smith isn’t going to do it.

You’d blame this on the suits at Disney and the stooges in Bristol who run ESPN. But much of it is above their pay grade, lofty though it might be. Our culture is changing in two ways which are not good and which they can’t fix (and don’t want to).

First, the younger generations are increasingly too soft for the kinds of hardcore competitive sports which draw the big audiences. There is still very much a core American culture that produces football and baseball players, and to an extent basketball players as well (though if you haven’t noticed, the best players in the NBA, like Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokić, are increasingly foreigners), but kids today aren’t pushing into the big three American sports as much as they used to. It’s hard to dunk when you’re fat from eating processed junk food, after all.

The old line about how hard times make tough men, tough men make good times, good times make soft men, and soft men make hard times is appropriate here. When we’re supposed to believe the “King” is a loud-mouthed crybaby quitter like LeBron James, that should tell you something.

ESPN bears some of the blame for this. Not just pushing the woke angle the past few years, but commoditizing sports as entertainment as it’s done — the Espys, certainly, but more than that, the endless off-field programming pitting sports pundits against each other in sham politics-style debates about whether Michigan or Ohio State is the best in the Big Ten or whether the Astros or Red Sox will win the AL pennant, has ruined a lot of what people used to love about big-time sports: the pure joy of the game itself.

I beat on soccer all the time, but I notice that as the big soccer leagues around the world haven’t been touched by ESPN, you’ll find a whole lot more love of the game for its own purposes, which I’d contend is a lot harder to do with a protozoan sport like soccer than with a more complex and intricate sport like baseball or football.

They are not only ruining its own product, but they’re also playing a part in ruining the sports they cover. Or do you think it’s a coincidence that youth sports are becoming a sewer where unhinged parents harass referees and coaches?

And second, America is now a place where ordinary citizens are deciding that even fast food is too pricey for their budgets given the price of gasoline, where babies suffer from malnutrition thanks to a baby formula shortage, where farmers can’t buy tractors to sow and harvest their crops thanks to a microchip shortage, and where public schools are now factories for emotionally wrecked children abused by lunatics proselytizing a suicidal trans agenda on the taxpayer dime.

That America has no time for college and pro sports. That America is too busy fighting for its survival.

Which means soon ESPN will have to fight for its own survival. And maybe the pro and college sports leagues will, too.

Bread and circuses lasted the Roman Empire a good while, but not forever. And unless the hard times make the tough men on a fast timetable both at ESPN and in America at large, this sports megaplex eating away at itself won’t last, either.

Scott McKay
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Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics. He’s also a writer of fiction — check out his three Tales of Ardenia novels Animus, Perdition and Retribution at Amazon. Scott's other project is The Speakeasy, a free-speech social and news app with benefits - check it out here.
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