Sometimes it takes a red wedding situation to bring about change. Okay—that’s a little extreme, but new blood has been ushered into ESPN, a flagship of sports journalism, that’s been bleeding customers for years. In 2018, the network lost 2 million subscribers alone. It’s part of a marked decline that dates back to 2011 when ESPN was 100 million subscribers strong. It’s now 86 million. That’s still a lot of paying customers, but the loss of roughly 15 million $1.44 billion, it makes any further losses a serious issue, especially when the network pays $2 billion for the rights to Monday Night Football, whose renewal is due in 2021. With the continued bleeding, there’s no way ESPN could afford the rights. Outkick The Coverage’s Clay Travis broke down these numbers.
Former ESPN president John Skipper is out. The man who suspended longtime anchor Linda Cohn, a fixture on the network, for reportedly saying that politics had something to due with the 10+ million subscriber loss, but did nothing to former ESPN reporter and host Jemele Hill, who called President Donald Trump a white supremacist. More stories about how ESPN had become a bastion of political correctness ensued.
So, with no skipper, and new blood in the president’s chair, should we be hopeful for a more sports-oriented network? Maybe. Jimmy Pitaro, who is now running the show, said that if there’s one thing the data shows, it’s that the ESPN customer base wants the network to stay the hell out of politics. National Review’s Jim Geraghty pointed this out yesterday citing the interview Pitaro had with the LA Times. With cutting the cord now in full swing, the article based on how ESPN was combating this [emphasis mine]:
One of Pitaro’s priorities is to get ESPN’s brand and programming in front of the growing numbers of consumers who are not watching cable TV. According to research firm EMarketer, the number of people without pay-TV subscriptions will grow 19% to 39.3 million in 2019.
On that front, ESPN has also expanded its program offerings on YouTube and social media apps such as Twitter — where 5.5 million viewers watched “On the Clock,” live NFL draft coverage produced exclusively for that audience. There is also a brisk version of “SportsCenter” designed for Snapchat users to watch on mobile devices.
Pitaro said “the angels started singing” after an employee told him about three 13-year-olds who started watching “SportsCenter” on TV after discovering it on Snapchat. “That’s exactly what we’re going after,” he said.
The first show in January, which included a championship fight available exclusively on ESPN+, brought 600,000 new subscribers to the streaming service. (Pitaro also has anecdotal evidence that combat sports can draw younger fans — his 15-year-old son, Sean, his oldest of two children, has taken up boxing and spars in the ring four days a week.)
Pitaro has also satisfied ESPN’s more traditional fans by steering commentators away from political discussions on-air and on social media, which heightened during President Trump’s criticism of NFL player protests against social injustice during the playing of the national anthem.
“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,”Pitaro said. “My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”
We’ll see if this remains true.