Recently, Disney made waves with their acquisition of 21st century Fox and a variety of other Fox entities. It’s pretty well-known that Disney has been rather successful, but it might be less well-known that ESPN (recently) has not.
ESPN has hit a multitude of snags since reaching their peak subscription numbers of just over 100m in 2011. Cord-cutting has been the main culprit as magnitudes of people have migrated to second screens, OTT networks, or ala cart TV services such as Sling or DirecTV packages.
The sports mega-giant has dabbled in political disfavor and missteps as well, which is what we call a “tough go for the kid.” Keeping with a rule my senior year English Lit teacher taught me, bad things come in threes. Whether it be facing backlash for quieting Jemele Hill in the wake of anti-Trump tweets, cancelling their partnership with bubbling 18-34 male media-giant Barstool Sports after one episode in response to tweets from their founder degrading another host on their platform, or having their president step down immediately after rounds of layoffs, it hasn’t been a magical time for the worldwide leader in sports.
Neither of first two are necessarily out of line, yet ESPN is acting like the kid on the block who never left the green box in ball tag, afraid to make a move, pick a side, or have an attitude. They seem paralyzed in the middle of an attempt to not piss off any group of viewers, which today seems impossible. Let me tell ya, that’s no way to get respect from the neighborhood. You gotta risk it to get the biscuit, baby.
So, they’re hurting. I for one, prefer Bleacher Report if I’m anywhere not at home (which is often the case). There’s a little more swagger and attitude, maybe slight opinions, from there. Even some emoji game in their notifications, which keeps me on my toes. Stephen A. doesn’t do it for me like he used to, either.
I digress. Back to the acquisition.
Part of the $50 billion deal included 22 regional sports networks (RSNs) from Fox, while Fox remains in control of Fox Sports, Big Ten Network, and other national broadcasts. Disney is circumventing the cord-cutting issue by going for the jugular. The home team. This means that viewers in 22 markets that may have already dodged the ESPN price from cable will still be watching an ESPN-production as long as they want to watch their local heroes. The RSNs will turn into city-centric broadcasts like turning the YES Network in ESPN: New York, or something wildly creative like that.
Nonetheless, more viewers are going elsewhere for their content. More viewers are on the move, gobbling up information on second-screens and cherry picking what they want to read about or listen to. So, Disney positioned the troops in front of one of the last remaining pools of consumers, to stop the bleeding. But that well will continue to dry up just as the others have. I think.
This aspect of the deal serves as a solution for the time-being, but they have to continue with other ways of delivering content to the masses in ways that people don’t want to avoid. Or can’t avoid.
Which leads me to ESPN+. As Disney develops their own OTT Network for ESPN, the idea would be that with the addition of these regional networks, users can pick and choose the kind of curated content a “local sports guy” could only dream about. They can still get their daily dose of LeBron and the Top-10, but not miss anything about the local boys down the road. This is another way for consumers to take in content how and when they want to aside from traditional TV which has left many providers scrambling over the past few years.
Side note: Disney is also working to pull their content off of Netflix while developing their own streaming service. This means Pixar films, this means ESPN 30 for 30’s, this means X-Men, Star Wars, Avatar – all gone from Netflix and all going to be exclusively on a Disney-led platform. That is expected to compete against Netflix in 2019, although with Netflix releasing their latest quarterly earnings, I don’t think a Francis Ngannou (google him)-sized truck could slow down that train.
But with that, let me ask a question… at risk of sounding like a darn uninformed millennial, let’s say this net neutrality thing turns negatively. If ESPN owns the rights to local sports, College Football bowl games and National Championships, and Monday Night Football, will they, or the higher powers that be, be able to slow down content on national broadcasts depending on your provider? – or even broadcast on delay – but have the access on their platform (or Disney’s platform) crystal-clear and on time? I don’t know, but it certainly seems a possibility to drive consumers to their programming.
As ESPN develops their own OTT Network and Disney does their Disney things, the TV landscape will become increasingly sectioned off and programming will be continually specialized for the viewer. Even with a paywall, I think this is where the purchase helps ESPN. Broadcast wise, I think the numbers will continue to go down, I think less and less people are watching live TV (and for less time) over streaming-services. But as everything moves to Roku’s, Apple TV’s, and phone screens, easy to access content in shorter form is the way to go.