ESPN is still television’s premier sports network and sports’ biggest full-service media and entertainment organization, and if its recent spending binge to soak up rights for live sporting events is any indication, it is doing everything it can to stay that way for the foreseeable future. But with Fox Sports 1 launching soon and other networks, like NBC Sports Network, attempting to gain a foothold in the market, the Worldwide Leader’s ratings data might matter now more than ever.
But that ratings data isn’t good. ESPN’s primetime ratings dropped 32 percent in the second quarter compared to the same time last year. ESPN2′s dropped 12 percent. Its total-day viewership dropped from 892,000 in 2012 to 715,000 this year. ESPN2′s fell from 268,000 last year to 234,000. Meanwhile, other networks, like the Golf Channel, NBC Sports, and MLB TV, improved, so this isn’t necessarily an industry-wide phenomenon. ESPN explained away the drop as a blip caused by a weaker-than-2012 NBA Conference Finals and the lack of 21 top-flight soccer matches from the 2012 Euro Cup. That makes sense, but as Deadspin noted, it doesn’t explain it all, because the network’s first quarter ratings were down too.
Still, it strikes me as premature to view the data as evidence of a looming seismic shift in sports broadcasting, or even as a major problem for ESPN. If ratings and viewership continue to drop, that will be a problem. But right now, ESPN’s core business still seems strong and positioned to deal with the biggest short- and long-term threats to its stranglehold on the industry. The big money it has laid out for live programming rights — other than the NBA, it has its major products locked down into the next decade — will go a long way in keeping Fox Sports 1 from encroaching on it there, and those investments are also positioning it to fight with the next generation of live sports programmers, which don’t come from traditional television but from the web.
The web is important now, though, because there are lessons ESPN can learn from the online content producers — like Google and Netflix — that may one day push onto the frontier of live sports programming. Both Netflix and Google have been masters of online innovation and content providing, whether through Google’s aggregation and search functions or through Netflix’s acquisition of programming rights for movies and TV shows. And they have both continued to push: Google has enabled live-streaming on YouTube and will almost certainly try to get into live programming one day, and Netflix is now producing its own original content.
In the sports world, ESPN used to be that type of thought-leader. Sometimes it still is. But while there is still good programming on ESPN each day, the type of hard-thinking that went into developing shows like Pardon The Interruption and Around The Horn seems to be missing from most of the WWL’s latest work. SportsCenter, the show that built ESPN into what we know it as today, has been slumping this year, and adding high-tech graphics and moving anchors around the studio isn’t going to fix that. First Take is an attempt at sports talk radio shock jockery that absolutely no serious person takes seriously — and its ratings reflect that.
If ESPN has pushed the envelope on the print and web sides, offering everything from daily news to solid coverage on sports like soccer (which it used to ignore) to, via Grantland and ESPN The Magazine, quality long-form and cultural journalism, the basic daily menu on-air seems like the same dish cooked 100 different ways. In print and online, ESPN keeps giving audiences new reasons to seek out its magazine, and even a new outlet like Grantland. But if ESPN wants to act like Netflix and attract new viewers who someday might be able to get its core content elsewhere, the network will need to follow in Netflix’s footsteps and continue to develop must-watch original programming that viewers can’t find anywhere else. ESPN has done that before with shows like Playmakers, 30 for 30, Nine for IX, and PTI. I don’t know if that alone will fix ESPN’s ratings. I do know that ratings for live programming are going to fluctuate with the quality of the events being shown, though, and if ESPN wants to continue as the behemoth entertainment provider it has been in the past, it could stand to put more effort into what it produces in-house and how it plans to keep evolving than it has been lately.