ESPN's Dilemma in Mobile Age Where Fans See Clips All Day

  • `SportsCenter' retools to target fans on the move, night owls
  • Competition erodes audience at most-watched cable TV network

When Holly Holm delivered her vicious knockout against UFC champion Ronda Rousey last month, the highlight seemed perfect for ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

Yet by the time the sports network’s flagship news program showed images of the fight, many had already seen the clip on Reddit and commented on Twitter.

Holly Holm knocks out Ronda Rousey on Nov. 15.
Holly Holm knocks out Ronda Rousey on Nov. 15.
Photographer: Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images

That’s the dilemma for ESPN and “SportsCenter,” the news and highlights show the network introduced to pay-TV audiences 35 years ago. While ESPN remains the dominant sports outlet on TV and the Web, and the single biggest profit contributor at Walt Disney Co., competition is eating into its audience. To adapt, the company is reinventing “SportsCenter” for mobile viewing and online sharing, adding new late and early morning editions.

“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,” Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president for news, said in an interview. The show “is still relevant and meaningful to people. It’s a matter of where they are and how they consume it.”

One big change is set for February, when ESPN introduces a 7 a.m. edition of “SportsCenter.” The network will try to attract viewers on their way to school or work by encouraging them to watch on mobile devices, King said.

In September, Scott Van Pelt took over as anchor of a new late edition of “SportsCenter.” Van Pelt can compete with talk-show hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, King said, and his show is experimenting with new segments, including one that shows highlights of plays that would be of keen interest to bettors. A recent ad urging fans to “end your day on a highlight” included a spot with a college student watching late at night on his tablet from the roof of a frat house.

Media Meltdown

Disney itself cast a light on the troubles at ESPN in August when the company cut its profit outlook, citing a drop in the homes that get the sports network. The announcement renewed investor concerns that consumers are dropping or cutting back on pay-TV services and sent media stocks tumbling.

ESPN’s ratings are another sign of the changes rattling the TV industry.

Live editions of “SportsCenter” are down 10 percent this year in total viewers, according to ESPN, while the Sunday pregame show “NFL Countdown” is down 13 percent. Overall, viewership has fallen 10 percent in 2015, though network executives say that’s really 4 percent excluding World Cup and NASCAR events that didn’t air this year.

Same Pressures

“ESPN is so valuable because they have the most valuable live sports content,” said Liam Boluk, a media strategist at Jason Hirschhorn’s REDEF. “But the rest of their programming is under the same pressures as the rest of the industry.”

Meanwhile, audiences are growing at the Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN, which are up 14 percent and 25 percent in prime-time, respectively, though both networks draw only a fraction of ESPN’s viewers, according to Nielsen data. For NFL games this season, ESPN’s ratings are down 3 percent while two broadcast networks, NBC and CBS, have gained, according to data supplied by the programmers. ESPN says that’s largely because it has aired one fewer Monday Night Football matchup.

Bristol, Connecticut-based ESPN has been in a belt-tightening mode. In October, the network eliminated about 300 positions worldwide. Over the past year, it has parted with several prominent 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. I really don’t,” Simmons said on his podcast last month. “They didn’t have a plan for this whole next generation of stuff.”

An ESPN spokeswoman said Simmons wasn’t privy to internal conversations about the company’s future.

Live Sports

ESPN’s abundance of live sports has helped it stay on top of the cable TV landscape. It’s the No. 1 cable network and its “Monday Night Football” telecasts outdraw all other networks on that night. The network also commands the highest monthly rate from pay-TV services, at $6.64, according to SNL Kagan. And not all of its talk shows are down. “Mike & Mike,” a radio show simulcast on ESPN2, is up 16 percent in viewers, the company said.

In prime time, which is dominated by live sports, ESPN’s audience is up slightly over the past two years, “which is great in today’s TV world,” according to Artie Bulgrin, the network’s senior vice president of global research. 

“Our relative advantage in the marketplace is stronger than it has been in a long, long time,” Bulgrin said in an interview. “When everything can be time-shifted, live sports is going to win.”

ESPN executives say they are prepared for the changing TV landscape and are faring better than some entertainment-oriented channels. The network’s digital audience, which isn’t counted in the ratings, is growing, with the WatchESPN app adding 1.5 percent to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” audience.

Earlier this month, the network unveiled live streaming on its main app, making it easier to alert mobile viewers “when something great is happening on ‘SportsCenter,’” King said.

Advertisers are following ESPN’s audience online as well. Amplifi, a division of the ad agency Dentsu Aegis Network that handles media buying for Microsoft Corp., General Motors Co. and Home Depot Inc., has shifted some spending to ESPN’s digital channels, according to Andy Donchin, chief U.S. investment officer.

“If you want to reach men, it’s kind of hard not to buy ESPN,” Donchin said. “They dominate the sports marketplace. They used to be the 800-pound gorilla. Now they’re the 795-pound gorilla.”

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