What’s Wrong With ESPN And How To Fix It

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What has happened to so many innovators before seems to be happening to ESPN today.   


I remember the days when sports content wasn’t ubiquitous, when watching the teams you love wasn’t an easy find. Those days are gone and for that we can thank ESPN. The network was the pioneer in making live sports an accessible commodity on America’s airwaves.

SportsCenter in 1979
with George Grande (L) and Lee Leonard (photo, DePauw University)

I loved watching ESPN. It was everything I had hoped for in a sports network. I paid scant attention to competitors, like Fox. How could they rival ESPN? The Gold Standard exists!

Then, unexpectedly, things changed, slowly at first. Today it’s gotten to the point that ‘what used to be’ no longer exists. ESPN has become a shadow of its former self.

For one thing, ESPN has “Gone Hollywood”–the sets, the hosts, even the wardrobes. There’s too much studio glitz and an overage of commentary coming from dubious sources.

For another thing, what used to be thick is now thin. ESPN has more programs, more channels, more of everything—at any time of the day, every day. Yet I often find thin pickings. I click through what’s offered and, then, often decide to watch something else.

Courtesy: ESPN MediaZone

Yes, I still watch some content. My favorites are Outside the Lines (Bob Ley is fantastic) and 30 for 30 (compelling journalism). To be fair, I watch other content, too–infrequently, not regularly–programs like Pardon the Interruption (thought-provoking), Highly Questionable (quirky), and Around the Horn (diverse perspectives). But for every show I watch, there’s another offering that … well … I never watch.

I know it’s fashionable to dump on ESPN these days. The network took a lot of guff when it announced recently that it would not renew the contracts of about a hundred staff members.

Courtesy: Business Insider

I know ESPN is facing financial challenges. Disney/Hearst (ESPN owner, 80%/20%) isn’t happy. The “situation at ESPN” took up a lot of airtime at a recent shareholders’ meeting.

I know it costs a bundle to secure the rights to broadcast live sporting events.

I know that viewing habits are changing. Many people are cutting the cord and getting content from a variety of sources other than cable and satellite TV. Those changes put pressure on ESPN’s bottom line.

I know all of these things are related, too.

So it’s understandable that ESPN is trying, as best it can, to figure out how to re-calibrate its formula—what it does, how it does it, and who does it—to better align content/presentation with the changing consumer scene.

I’ve followed the changes with interest. My response: I watch ESPN less and less overall, and more and more selectively.

Courtesy: Deadspin

My guess is that ESPN is facing a problem that many once-successful organizations have faced. They evolved from literally nothing to something special, but at some point lost their way.

ESPN is trying to fix what’s wrong by tweaking the schedule, re-positioning its personalities, and doing a number of other things. But will those things really make a difference? I think not. Why? They don’t address underlying problems.

Who knows? Perhaps this essay is really about me. Maybe I no longer need most of what ESPN delivers because I’ve changed–my interests, perspectives, and viewing habits all have changed.

But I also know we don’t live in a monolithic environment today–like the one that gave rise to ESPN’s founding decades ago. Back then there was tremendous interest in sports amid a paucity of sports coverage. Today people have choices galore. Commercial sports options are everywhere.

Because of that reality I don’t understand why ESPN is trying to compete with volume. I believe ESPN should compete with definition and distinctiveness. I don’t see much of either at ESPN — either across the channels or in its programming. It all seems like a big glob to me.

John Skipper, president,. ESPN (phot0, Reuters)

Why do I say that? I’m a great believer in the principle that form follows function. I don’t see that at ESPN. For example, the same program (say, SC Featured) can be seen on multiple networks–often in the same day. If the purpose is to simply fill airtime, that’s not a good business strategy.

I’m not a broadcast executive, but here’s what I’d do. I’d accentuate definition and distinctiveness.

ESPN News: Fans want updates–no commentary–just updates about what’s happening any day (every day) in sports. ESPN News should offer that function 24 hours a day. It would be coverage based on reporting. Studio hosts would give fans the scores/news of the day and reporters would provide details, including interviews with players, coaches, and others related to the games and leagues. No commentary, no panels…none of that. Just reporting. It’s a sports news channel.

ESPN2 (renamed ESPNTalk): Commentary (that is, opinion) is fundamental to sports. Fans relish it because they engage in it all the time. So consolidate ESPN’S commentary at what’s now ESPN2. Those who want to hear what wags have to say can hear them 24 hours a day. Include all the panel shows that offer commentary about various sports (e.g., NFL, MLB, college football). Also include all the commentary shows from First Take, to SportsNation, to Pardon the Interruption. Bottom line: put talking heads all in one place.

ESPN (renamed ESPNPrime): This is the flagship channel and its programming should reflect that status. Air only high-profile live events (big games) and well-produced investigative reports (e.g., OTL, E:60, 30 for 30, SC Featured). Create additional documentaries and investigative reports. Why? ESPN does both really well. No competitor has what ESPN has in Bob Ley, Tom Rinaldi, and Jeremy Schapp–just to name three outstanding broadcasters. Bottom line: airing big-league live events and investigative reports/human interest stories distinguishes ESPN. Don’t lose those crown jewels in the morass of less important programming.

ESPNU (renamed ESPNLive): ESPNU made sense before the proliferation of FOX and conference channels. Does it make sense today? Perhaps. If it does, then put all non-primary live games on this channel. But be selective about it. What is the national value of broadcasting games like Toledo v. Central Michigan football and Oklahoma v. Texas softball? I don’t see it. Identify the best of the best of what I’ll call “the live secondary offerings”–across all sports–and broadcast them on ESPNLive. Don’t overspend on these offerings.

What’s it all mean? Something big needs to happen if people like me are going to watch ESPN as frequently as we once did. Without major change I fear that ESPN will eventually become a chapter in the history books.

That would be a sad end to what has been–and should continue to be–a vital part of the American cultural scene.

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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Comments (What’s Wrong With ESPN And How To Fix It)

    Kathy wrote (05/31/17 - 10:13:12AM)

    Good overview Frank!