Much has been said and written about ESPN’s struggles over the past few years. From cord cutting to layoffs to declining ratings and revenues, the media has portrayed ESPN like the Titanic right after it crashed into the iceberg.
But despite the negative headlines, the network has remained the dominant brand in sports media. From television to digital to radio, ESPN has continued to lead the charge, despite facing stiffer competition.
Some blame the network’s problems on steep increases in their rights deals with the leagues they feature play by play programming from. Others have called ESPN a prisoner of past successes. The remaining critics point to losing too many high profile personalities, a left leaning political agenda, and moving too slowly to modernize SportsCenter as viewers tastes begun to change.
When a sports media company is recognized as the elite of an industry for decades, it’s going to have a large bullseye on its back. Many prefer watching the underdog knock off the favorite instead of appreciating sheer excellence. And when it comes to sports media circles, there’s no denying ESPN has been the dominant global brand occupying space inside the mind of every sports fan.
But is that space in jeopardy of being compromised? And if so, why is that the case?
At a recent meeting with stockholders, Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors that the assertion that the company exhibits significant political bias in its programming is completely exaggerated. He also stated that if people watched the network’s programs they would not detect any political bias.
But that opinion isn’t shared by many in the sports media industry. It becomes even harder to subscribe to that belief after The Big Lead conducted a survey with 51 different media members and discovered that 49 of the 51 did not vote for Donald Trump. Although the survey did not specify which media outlets participated in the survey, you can bet some ESPN personalities participated.
Throughout the years ESPN has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the sports media landscape, treating competitors like an afterthought. The company has resisted issuing public narratives to defend their positions, and have been the prettiest girl at the Walt Disney Company’s annual dance. Industry professionals have viewed ESPN as the best in the business, and the place that everyone dreams of working for if they want to make a great living and have their life’s work mean something.
But with so much criticism and cynicism surrounding the company these days, it’s forced president John Skipper to go on the record to tout the company’s strengths and remind investors, advertisers and the public of the brand’s dominance. That’s a different approach than the one ESPN has been accustomed to following.
After the network reported sub-par fourth quarter earnings, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated wrote that the company would eliminate a number of on-air positions by June. That’s led to a lot of tension in Bristol, CT as employees contemplate what their futures might look like if ESPN calls their number.
It also hasn’t increased confidence among the public, investors or members of the advertising community who continue to wait for ESPN to right the ship and guide them back to prosperous times.
With so much happening to ESPN over the past few years, I wondered if the perception among sports fans was as grim as the media had been portraying it to be. To get a sense of where ESPN stood with its readers, viewers, and listeners, I conducted a short 10-question survey. The survey was conducted over the span of one week from March 7-14, and a total of 1,363 people contributed. Below are the results.
A combined 91% of participants say they consume ESPN’s content less or no longer enjoy it. Only 8.8% say their opinion of the company and its programming remains unchanged.
Despite Bob Iger’s claims that the network doesn’t exude any political bias, that opinion is not shared by those who participated in this study. 60% of survey members felt that the company has a left-leaning agenda. 39.2% say the political influence on the company’s airwaves is either neutral, undetected or right leaning.
The survey showed that 97.2% of sports fans feel less enthusiastic about ESPN’s programming. A total of 69.9% say they either no longer watch or only tune in occasionally. Slightly more than 30% say they love the programming and watch a decent amount of it.
The perception of ESPN’s Talent isn’t as strong as it once was. A combined 40.3% feel ESPN employs great talent despite losing some key people in recent years. The remaining 59.7% feel the network’s talent level is either underwhelming or not close to where it once was.
The change in presentation for SportsCenter appears to be too early to draw any concrete conclusions. 49.3% say it’s either not their style or they don’t like it, but most people initially reject change so this isn’t uncommon. 32.6% say they like it or are still getting used to it, and 18% didn’t notice.
Rather than boxing people in with this question by giving them a few choices to pick from, we wanted to get a sense of what studio programs drew the best recall. The three programs that received the most positive feedback were Pardon The Interruption, Baseball Tonight, and College GameDay.
Similar to question 6, we wanted to know which programs emotionally moved the audience most in a negative way. The two shows which earned the least favorable feedback were First Take (#1 by a wide margin) and SportsCenter (many felt the show has become background noise and lacks great content worth tuning in for).
ESPN has a number of different categories it specializes in as a sports media content company. The ones that carried the largest appeal to participants in this survey were Play by Play and Documentaries, with PXP earning 1 out of every 3 votes. The only other category in double digits was League Specific Shows.
In measuring the categories which offered the least amount of value to sports fans, the members of this survey concluded that the number one area of disdain for them were Debate Shows. The only other category to receive double digit negative feedback was SportsCenter.
The final question was created to find out why sports fans were spending more or less time with the network. Those who enjoy ESPN’s programming more said it was because they Still Love Watching Games, 30 For 30 Is Exceptional Programming, and the channel is Easy To Find on Their Television.
Survey members who say they’re investing less time in the network’s programming attribute it to a Decrease In Content Quality and Talent, Better Choices Available via TV-Digital-Social, and Too Much Focus on Hot Take Shows with a Left Leaning Agenda and Less on Making Sports Fun and Neutral. Deflategate was another specific subject which turned off many fans.