The Wall Street Journal went deep on money problems in Bristol today in an article titled “How a Weakened ESPN Became Consumed by Politics.” The feature, like many others that have come before, presents as a fact that the Worldwide Leader is hemorrhaging subscribers due to a perceived shift to the left in its sports coverage. This view’s most prominent supporter is, of course, Donald Trump, and that he promotes it should be background enough for you to immediately question just how factual a fact this is. But if the Trump co-sign is not enough to convince you, there are some numbers—all of them culled from SportsTVRatings.com—that prove that this is, in fact, bullshit.
Let’s take a look at a cohort of networks’ subscriber numbers from July 2011 until May 2018:
NFL Network has gained 11 million viewers over the past seven years, boosting its numbers 20 percent. NBC Sports Network and MLB Network have both gained over that period, as well, but everyone else is off by 10 percent, more or less. Let’s narrow the window a bit, though, from June 2015 until May 2018:
Every single network has fewer subscribers in 2018 than they did in 2015; NBCSN only managed to lose 191,000 of them, 0.23 percent, which means it came out “ahead” of everyone else. ESPN fared pretty poorly over this period, which is to say that it performed just as badly as Fox News did. It had nowhere near the losses of NBATV, MLB Network, or Golf Channel.
(Fox Sports 1 is not included in this list, as it—along with Fox Sports 2—were rebranded channels that existed, and in some cases still exist, on different cable tiers; thus, their subscriber numbers are not quite comparable. FS1 lost 1 percent of its subscribers from 2015 to 2018, if you were wondering.)
Are conservatives similarly “fed up” with Brian Kenny’s political views? Those of NBATV’s The Starters? Teen Titans? Of course not. People are just unsubscribing to cable TV altogether, and doing so in growing numbers.
ESPN is quite different from its partners in the above data cohort, though: its monthly carriage fee of nearly $8.00 is absurdly high compared to that of, say, NFL Network (which bills subscribers $1.40 a month) or NBC Sports Network ($0.32). Given that we can clearly see that basic cable subscribers are cutting the cord in favor cheaper, online alternatives, it seems a much more rational projection to assume that people seeking to reduce their cable bills would start with the programming that constitutes such a large percentage of it.
That choice has only become possible through more recent diversifications of cable package options. Until quite recently, ESPN was essentially included in even the most basic of basic-cable packages; now, at least with my providers, it is part of a number of “tiers” subscribers can choose from—meaning that for the first time, you can subscribe to TNT, CNN, and the national broadcast networks without buying the “basic sports tier” of ESPN and its more-expensive associates.
This is just the first phase of an a la carte cable TV future, and that future rightfully should terrify ESPN and Disney executives. But that path is straightforward and pretty obvious; it’s a simple business story about an industry struggling into a period of disruption. If ESPN actually believes that “we’ve become too political” is the reason for its recent decline, they’re in even worse shape than they know.