In a Hot Take World, those of us who prefer more nuanced and measured approaches sometimes have to wade through a lot of shouty nonsense and clickbait headlines before finding the needles in the massive media haystack.
The Washington Post recently had one of those smart stories — the kind that really provide some depth to a discussion — on the future of ESPN and pro sports on TV as a whole. The premise: There have been a lot of gloom-and-doom pieces about ESPN lately, motivated by the company’s cost-cutting edict and the money being lost every time someone drops cable. (The subscriber base has dropped by more than 3 million in little over a year, a startling number that means every minute of the past year, six people have dropped from the base).
But amidst the gloom-and-doom there are larger questions. Namely: Could ESPN actually be better-positioned to survive the carnage better than others … and is the real story about what pro leagues might do with their televised content in the future? Some passages and information I found particularly interesting:
*Regarding what might happen in an unbundled world — one without cable or with enough cable-free households to really make a la carte a thing — there was this:
Michael Nathanson, senior research analyst at Moffett Nathanson, estimates ESPN would actually have to charge about $36 monthly in an unbundled world, but he thinks the network would still get more than enough customers. The sports networks really threatened by a move away from cable, according to Nathanson, are ESPN’s competitors Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports, both on a recent list he compiled of the 10 most expensive cable channels not among the most viewed.
“If everyone gets weaker, the bottom end of the market would get weaker, and (Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports) therefore would probably have less conviction to get into bidding wars with ESPN … for these sports rights,” said Nathanson.
A couple of interesting things there. First, $36 a month? That’s ludicrous. I don’t care how much I like sports. I’m not paying that. (It also makes something like Sling TV seem like a bargain, though that’s a very early trial and certainly subject to pricing change as the market shifts).
Second: The point that FS1 and NBC Sports would be in danger is a salient one. While both have positioned themselves nicely with some key contracts (particularly in soccer) and could shift more of the over-the-air programming from their parent networks to the sports-only cable channels, it is stands to reason that they are both far more vulnerable to a cable-less world. If you are only going to pay for one a la carte sports channel, which one is it? Probably ESPN.
*The cost-cutting is coming in an area in which ESPN feels like it can take hits — namely, the talent and not the TV product:
The departures of Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd have come when, according to The Hollywood Reporter, ESPN has been told to trim $100 million from its 2016 budget and $250 million from the 2017 budget. ESPN disputes these numbers, but let’s say they’re accurate. Yes, $100 million is a lot of money. But when your annual budget is in the neighborhood of $6 billion (and probably more) $100 million represents less than 2 percent of the overall pie. And ESPN is far from the only cable network looking to trim.
ESPN has a long track record of letting high-priced talent leave. ESPN does not have a long track record of letting competitors corner the market on live sporting events. The network has recently relinquished rights to some events — the British Open, U.S. Open golf and, according to a Monday Sports Business Journal story, the French Open — but with ESPN locked into deals with America’s major sports leagues for the rest of this decade, the sports cable landscape should stay relatively stable until the early 2020s.
Those are good numbers to keep all of this in perspective. That said, it does dovetail into a larger point that there will come a time when all of the massive TV contracts are up … and at that point, the major U.S. leagues — all of whom have their own channels, streaming means, etc — could wield a pretty big hammer.
The biggest threat to ESPN, and its competitors, is a scenario develops in which sports leagues can make more money televising their games themselves than they do now selling their television rights to the highest bidder. That day could come, analysts think, but not this decade.
Not this decade is a long enough time for us to forget about it for a little while, but we’re already halfway through the 2010s. I can’t shake the feeling that the pro sports on TV bubble — which is the thing really driving all the crazy money in pro sports in general when you consider what’s happening to the NBA salary cap and how much every NFL team makes before selling a single ticket — is exceedingly fragile long-term.
Everyone has a choice about whether they get cable, but once you unbundle, it becomes a far more conscious decision. And if this piece is correct, sports channels won’t find a feeding frenzy among thrifty millennials.
Maybe ESPN is in the best shape to ride it out, but make no mistake: the storm is coming.