ESPN remains what its self-appointed moniker says it is — the worldwide leader in sports — but in recent months it has come under increasing scrutiny for the challenges it faces in an era of cord-cutting and increasing alternatives for news and highlights.
Those issues affect everything from the bottom line at Disney, ESPN’s parent company, to ratings for the network’s longtime programming pillar, “SportsCenter.”
Company executives sought Tuesday to address those matters, in part during their annual “upfront” presentation to advertisers at the Minskoff Theater in Manhattan and then after the show, when executives spoke to reporters.
ESPN president John Skipper took the lead, insisting that all is relatively well, but acknowledging the need to stay ahead of developments in consumer habits and media technology.
One help, he said, will be new data in which ESPN will seek to better measure the totality of its audience, including digital viewing and outside-the-home television watching in places such as bars, college dormitories and the like.
“For the first time we’re excited about the idea that we’re going to measure our whole audience,” Skipper said. “We will release out-of-home, and you’re going to see some very dramatic out-of-home numbers for ESPN.
“Those numbers will be incorporated into our self-estimates immediately and they will be part of the Nielsen (rating) numbers starting in ’17 and we think that’s a significant opportunity for us.”
Skipper said in some cases the new numbers will increase viewership for shows by double-digit percentages. But will the advertising community accept them as valid?
“I think over time they will understand that those eyeballs count just as much as the others,” Skipper said. “As you know it will be an outstanding discussion, probably over a couple of years. But Nielsen is going to build them into the numbers, so they will be part of the currency.”
Later, he added, “The data will actually have a very specific breakdown of where the out-of-home viewing comes from ... It will increase our ratings and will certainly provide a narrative that will be accurate as to our total measurement and the size of our total audience, which is pretty vast.”
For years ESPN has been a key driver of profits for Disney, but its economics have been under pressure because of high rights fees for live events and shrinkage in its subscriber base as people abandon traditional cable bundles.
Skipper largely shrugged off the notion ESPN will be in the “crosshairs” of corporate scrutiny.
“Look, by the way, the Walt Disney Company released their 11th straight quarter of double-digit earnings last week, so I’d be happy to be in the crosshair of that and the crosshair of the fact that the media networks contributed mightily to that,” he said.
“We’re quite encouraged by many of the conversations we’re having with new distributors and over-the-top distributors and new packages. We’ve got some real, we think, traction with SONY and Sling and other distributors.
“Look, we’ve said repeatedly, we like our hand. You saw today we think we still have a little swagger. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as being in the crosshairs, but we think we’ll continue to perform.”
One of the brand’s biggest challenges is to keep “SportsCenter” viable in an era in which many people, especially young ones, see highlights and scores long before they turn on a television.
A big part of that effort has been adding personality to the shows and trying to differentiate the many iterations that appear during the day and night.
“Any narrative that ‘SportsCenter’ does not remain central to the sports fan’s experience is inaccurate,” Skipper said. “That does have to include all platforms and all media. We understand that fans are going to get some of their scores and highlights from digital media, and guess where they’re going to get it: They’re going to get them from ESPN. Fifty-four percent of all the consumption of sports news and information in this country comes from ESPN sources.”
How does Skipper plan to make “SportsCenter” compelling in a new media world?
“I think it’s compelling because fans want the results of the games,” he said. “ ‘Compelling’ is a good word. We have to make every hour distinct because what can happen is ‘SportsCenter’ became something that was on all the time, and we didn’t differentiate the morning ‘SportsCenter’ from the late-night ‘SportsCenter’ from the mid-day ‘SportsCenter.’
“Now we’re doing that ... I think that’s how we have to make it compelling — to make it different. Then we have to allow the people who are on the shows to display their personality, and you see that with, like, Neil (Everett) and Stan (Verrett) when you look at the freedom they’re given now to display their personalities.”
Rob King is the ESPN senior vice president charged with overseeing “SportsCenter.”
“I think people are overstating how diminished ‘SportsCenter’ is,” he said. “In the coming months we’re going to see a measurement of how folks are accessing ‘SportsCenter’ both from a television-watching perspective and from a linear streaming perspective and those reports will be very positive and they will hopefully mitigate some of the gloom and doom that’s being disseminated.
“It’s a mistake to think ‘SportsCenter’ has been relatively passive as fans have changed ... For four or five years we’ve been really thinking about ‘SportsCenter’s’ place in the digital space, in the app space, in the social space. Flash forward to today and we have 25 million following the ‘SportsCenter’ Twitter handle, 15 million following the Facebook handle, six million following Instagram, millions on Snapchat. We’ve revamped our highlight area.
“Clearly we have diversified what ‘SportsCenter’ is from show to show to match what audiences are doing throughout the day, and it’s working. Maybe it’s just one of those things where it’s impossible for any one person to see everything we’re doing.
“Some of these people that are oft-quoted (questioning ‘SportsCenter’) are friends of mine and they’re working in what I would view as relatively different businesses right now. They’re giving their best estimation of what ‘SportsCenter’ is doing. Folks working in our shop are working on the continued evolution of ‘SportsCenter.’
“The point here is that our job is to appeal always to our audiences. George Grande laid this out on the very first ‘SportsCenter.’ If there’s a big event we’ll cover it. It’s there’s a big highlight we’ll show it. It’s a big promise, right? ... The promise belongs to everybody. We will continue with the evolution of the show.”