In the past year, the sports media landscape has undergone massive changes. In response, the biggest outlets have had to adapt, and new companies with paradigm-shifting visions have sprung. According to an article by Business Insider, Connecticut-based ESPN has steadily decreased in viewership. After reaching a peak of over 100 million subscribers in 2011, subscribers to “The Worldwide Leader in sports” have dwindled to a devastating 87 million in 2017. This monumental loss comes at a time when ESPN is paying out massive long-term contracts. It also comes on the heels of their former president, John Skipper, stepping down. The result? Hundreds of salaries getting axed.
Other dramatic shifts continue to arise. In February of this year, Meredith Corporation completed its purchase of Time Inc. Six weeks later, the mega media conglomerate announced a sweeping round of layoffs to 200 positions, and another 1,000 slated for the next 10 months. , They also announced the sale of four Time Inc. magazine properties, including Sports Illustrated. In the past decade, SI has been sacked with a loss of nearly 500,000 subscribers, down from 3.2 million to 2.75 million. At its peak, SI was universally loved among fans of sports. Readers gravitated towards expert opinions and exclusive stories that they could not get elsewhere, as well as issues that commemorated championship teams, memorable figures, and historical moments in sports. Personally, after the home run race of 1998, I remember a commemorative issue that chronicled the seasons of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, celebrating an event that undoubtedly brought new interest in the sport of baseball as a whole.
The main cause for the decline in popularity for companies like ESPN and SI can be found in their pursuit in revenue. Like many media outlets, ESPN and SI made their money through advertising. Both companies served the interests of bigger corporate entities (ESPN with Disney, and SI with Time Inc.), and were beholden to their advertisers and investors. These interests affected the way that the respective staffs crafted their stories.
Advertising revenue was a fine way to grow a company – until the needs of the audience changed. Over the course of the past six months, ESPN has taken steps to usher in a younger audience. In October of 2017, ESPN brought in Katie Nolan, with the intent to increase its digital presence. Currently, she is one of the hosts on a reworked version of SportsCenter that is exclusively broadcast on Snapchat. ESPN also launched ESPN+ subscription-based streaming service earlier this month. With ESPN+, fans will be given access to exclusive content like a 30 for 30 on Bob Knight, a basketball analysis show starring Kobe Bryant, and more specialty programming. Subscribers will also be able to watch rugby, soccer, cricket, and other sports that are not commonly shown on the ESPN family of channels. Those scouting out mainstream sports will enjoy , regularly scheduled MLB and NHL games.daily. ESPN+ is a test run for Disney to launch its own streaming service for additional properties in the future, so we can only speculate as to how the service will grow at this time.
Despite the volatile ownership situation, SI is making an effort to shift their focus to its digital resources in the future, concentrating on stories that the fans care about. With most sports sites giving the reader a dime-a-dozen game recap, a need has arisen for a closer look at the stories behind the each game. With the rise of successful subscription ventures like The Athletic, SI needs to adjust quickly and with quality to keep up. Their leverage? Their reputation. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a reinvented nostalgia run from SI in this reboot happy landscape.
The current climate has even the past powerhouses asking themselves a difficult question: Is the Athletic the cutting edge of sports media coverage? If so – are they too late? In January 2016, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann tapped into the thirsty audience that was looking for pure, in depth sports journalism by creating The Athletic. The purpose of The Athletic was to bring sports fans in a given city the coverage that they were not getting elsewhere. Not only are fans responding – and willing to invest in – this return to truer journalism, but their staff is stable and happier, enjoying freedom from the shackles of writing to advertisers’ agendas. Combining regional coverage with the pristine reputations of nationally known writers like Ken Rosenthal and Seth Davis, The Athletic put together a package that audiences were more than happy to pay for.
With sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify leading the way, people began to acclimate themselves to media that was available at the click of a button, without the hassle of sitting through commercials. In order for sports media to grow and for companies to either stay relevant or come into prominence, revenue is going to have to be less dependent on advertising and more dependent on the interest of the audience.
–Matt Mellinger, Communications Coordinator