ESPN is dying and we should all be scared
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
For as long as I can remember, ESPN has been the go-to spot for in-depth coverage on all sports in all leagues all around the world. But over the past few years, it’s been on a downward spiral that, sooner or later, will cause the end of the company as we know it.
ESPN has historically made money by selling cable subscriptions which currently sit around $8 a month. At their peak in 2011, they had somewhere around 100 million subscribers, but that number now sits closer to 86 million--netting them a loss of around $1.44 billion.
The biggest issue for them is clearly the new craze of “cutting the cord”, where families all over are choosing to end their cable bill and switch to streaming services that offer live programs, such as YouTubeTV or Hulu (which has live sports).
ESPN does have a streaming service to watch live games an entire library of original content, ESPN+, but with just 1 million subscribers, it only brings in about $60 million. That’s not enough to plug the gaping hole caused by cord cutting.
Regardless of what’s happening to them right now, the real test will come next year. At the end of the 2021 NFL season, ESPN will no longer have the rights to broadcast Monday Night Football--and with that, they also lose the rights to show any NFL highlights during SportsCenter or any of their shows.
That loss would be a massive blow to an already struggling company. Of course, they could buy the rights for it again, but with the last deal being worth around $2 billion a year and all signs pointing to the next one being higher, it would be incredibly difficult for them to pay the hefty price.
It’s not just the NFL. Eventually, they’ll have to find the money to buy the rights for the other leagues they currently broadcast like the NBA, Big 10 and more. Without the rights to broadcast those games or watch their highlights, ESPN will likely lose most of the rest of their subscribers regardless of whether or not people continue cutting the cord.
If ESPN folds, we the viewers lose the only major channel that broadcasts nearly every sport, and all of the biggest ones in the US. That would likely lead to streaming services bundling multiple channels together that each cover a few sports instead of having one that covers all of them.
On paper, that might not seem like the worst thing in the world. But services would likely take that opportunity to charge crazy prices for that bundle, making it more pricey than most people would like.
If they no longer have the rights to Monday Night Football, who gets it? I don’t think it’s very likely that a network that already has some football (NBC, CBS, and FOX) pays extra for Monday Night, and there aren’t many other networks that have the resources aside from ABC. But, since Disney owns both ABC and ESPN, it wouldn’t make sense for them to try to get it for ABC since it would consequently destroy what’s left of ESPN.
So who buys it? There’s a lot of talk of a streaming service buying the rights, which would also be terrible for most viewers. Most services cost too much money for most people to pay for just one game of football a week and maybe some shows with highlights during the rest of the time.
Amazon specifically has been a name thrown around in the Monday Night Football conversation. After all, they have more than enough resources--they brought in over $280 billion in revenue in 2019--and they have a successful streaming service that could benefit from having live sports.
Amazon could also just buy ESPN, which is (unfortunately) probably the best move for Disney. ESPN has become a money vacuum that isn’t bringing in enough revenue for them to make it worth it, but Amazon has enough money to not have to worry about it.
In the end, I know that I would probably pay the price to watch football. I did spend a hefty amount of cash this year on NFL Sunday Ticket, which showed every non-national game, but I would also be willing to go for Amazon Prime or YouTubeTV. But I know not everyone can make that sacrifice, which is the reason that the idea of ESPN folding should worry a lot of us.
If they’re gone, we lose more than just a cable channel. We lose easy access to sports, which is one of the last things that we care about watching live. If we lose that for all sports, I could see a future where sports are no longer important to enough people for the leagues to continue funding them. In other words, the fall of ESPN could also be the beginning of the end of sports as we know it.