ESPN kicked off its annual upfront presentation for advertisers Tuesday morning with a live, original performance from two of the stars of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. This was a hokey way for ESPN to glom onto something popular and impress the easily-impressed media buyers in the audience; it also served as a workable metaphor for the direction in which ESPN would like to head, and like to be seen heading.
The upfront took place against a backdrop of continuous bad news for ESPN. Even though Disney reported increased earnings in Q2 last week, its stock fell 6% as investors remained worried about the future of ESPN, Disney’s greatest profit generator. In November, Disney revealed that ESPN had 92 million subscribers, down from 99 million two years earlier. According to Nielsen, they now have about 90 million. The ratings for ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter, have been declining for years, and one could read the departures of Mike Tirico, Skip Bayless, Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Robert Flores, and Jason Whitlock, among others, as evidence of a talent exodus.
Despite all this, ESPN believes it has a good argument to make about why its future is sound: Whatever the travails of television as a medium, live sports remain the most compelling programming it has to offer, enjoyed by enormous audiences, and will for as far out as anyone can see; that said, ESPN has an array of products and services to serve programming and advertising to viewers and potential viewers whether or not they’re watching on traditional televisions; and, as society grows more diverse, ESPN will have talent that looks like everybody, to match programming that appeals to everybody and can be watched by everybody, no matter where they are. Thus, the Hamilton guys:
“The Speed of Live” was the tagline for ESPN’s upfront, and the opening reel featured amazing moments broadcast live on ESPN/ABC, like Michigan State’s shock victory over Michigan and Steph Curry’s 30-foot buzzer beater over Oklahoma City. It’s also the theme of a recently-launched ad campaign which attempts to convince viewers to tune in to live sports instead of Netflix, and SportsCenter instead of Instagram, or perhaps convince advertisers that it’s attempting to convince viewers to do so. Nothing ESPN does will halt the technological and generational shifts of its viewing audience, of course, but it will hold onto the “live sports are DVR-proof” argument as long as it can.
To that end, ESPN is touting an upcoming metric of Nielsen’s called Total Audience Measurement. AdAge has a good piece on it, but the basic idea is that ESPN has long been penalized by how Nielsen only measures in-home viewership. More so than other programming, live sports are viewed communally—in bars, airports, hotels, and dorm lounges—but these viewers go unaccounted for. ESPN claims, as an example, that adding outside-the-home viewing boosts the ratings of its college football broadcasts by nine percent, a significant number. This is how you find more meat on a gnawed-over bone.
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As much as ESPN is attempting to prop up the status quo, though, they acknowledge that to only do so would be suicidal. Today, ESPN pointed out that WatchESPN is now available on Android TV, and an exec touted the fact that WatchESPN is a default app and on the top row of all Apple TV- and Roku-type services. It introduced LiveConnect—described, in a release, as an overtly Orwellian product for advertisers. (“By utilizing data and marrying it with the live sports environment, ESPN will work with clients to create a variety of messages and then deliver a different execution, based upon the outcomes in live games and highlights and a fan’s anticipated emotional state.”) It stressed its medium-sized push into esports, which almost necessarily means targeting viewers who typically watch their sports on YouTube, Twitch, and so on. These and similar ventures represent modest but real investments in a rapidly-approaching future.
This ties in neatly with perhaps the most important part of ESPN’s strategy, which is to increasingly target the non-white and non-male audience, i.e., the majority of potential viewers. In one form or another, diversity was a constant presence in ESPN’s presentation. There was talk about how ESPN works to serve “all” fans; talk of “reflecting and leading cultural change”; ESPN’s viewers were described as “young, affluent, and culturally diverse”; and so forth. It clearly wasn’t coincidental that less than a month after firing Curt Schilling for repeatedly sharing hateful memes, his replacement on Sunday Night Baseball, Jessica Mendoza, was on stage hosting a conversation with Bryce Harper about Making Baseball Fun Again and attracting a younger generation of baseball fans.
After the presentation, ESPN president John Skipper reiterated that Schilling was fired for hateful views, not conservative ones:
“We have no tolerance for points of view that aren’t inclusive. We have a diverse culture. We are very focused on making sure that everybody can exist comfortably and succeed in that culture, that’s what we have no tolerance for, and I don’t care what the politics of the person who has such an attitude are.”
In the past, ESPN, enjoying the dual revenue stream cable carriage fees and advertising dollars gave it, positioned itself in the easiest way possible, appealing to young, straight white men watching TV. This is a bit of an oversimplification—ESPN has always been rightly proud of its record of hiring women and minorities, which is the best in the business, and they’ve certainly pursued young, straight black male viewers, too—but the network is clearly positioning itself for a different future, one in which the dual revenue stream isn’t quite the license to print money it once was and in which America is a majority-minority country. ESPN, like any capitalist enterprise responding to market signals, is readying itself for a future in which it will need appeal to everybody.
ESPN is still a hopelessly compromised tool of the sports leagues it partners with and of Disney’s corporate interests. It isn’t driven by moral imperatives; it isn’t on a crusade for equal rights; it isn’t out to, and won’t, change the world. But basic market forces suggest that ESPN’s former audience base is shrinking, and that to not diversify is to doom itself. So it will.
It’s an amusing irony that in doing so, ESPN is explicitly positioning itself against what Fox Sports stands for. Upon its launch three years ago, Fox Sports positioned itself as the “fun” alternative to the “serious” ESPN. It was a bizarre misunderstanding of what people didn’t like about ESPN, and such a failure that it was abandoned in short order for an even dumber strategy of chasing angry white men who think the Republican Party has gotten too librul. This is a strategy that plays right into ESPN’s hands, and even sets up a nice, easy narrative for media reporters. At the upfront, ESPN stressed it.
Given what the country looks like, and what the country will look like five and 10 years from now, it makes sense for ESPN to prefer Jessica Mendoza to Curt Schilling as the face it presents to the world on TV, online, and on phones. Happily for sports fans, she’s a better announcer than Schilling is, just as Dan Le Batard is a better hot-taker than Skip Bayless, and Bomani Jones is a better provacative radio host than Colin Cowherd. Meeting viewers where they are works for everyone, for now. The question is what will happen when it doesn’t—when virtue and the appearance of virtue don’t align so neatly and easily as they do now—and on that, ESPN didn’t offer many answers, or many reasons to think they want anyone to ask the question.