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Post Why I’m hoping ESPN can continue doing what it does best

Tuesday May 2, 2017

This is a self-centered post, so it’s worth noting first that many good journalists whose work I’ve relied on here are no longer with ESPN. The nature of journalism means that we tend to connect more with these names than we would had ESPN cut cameramen or accounting staff, but it’s an indivdually significant and life-changing moment and an opportunity for empathy anytime someone gets that news. Employees are bearing the cost of management decisions and market forces.

I was on the couch Sunday afternoon watching the home finale for Georgia softball. (Not a great season, but that’s another post.) I was watching an SEC Network-branded broadcast via the ESPN app on my Apple TV. Nearly every softball game has been available that way. Same with women’s hoops. Thanks to the SEC Network and the digital platform, just about every Georgia football and basketball game is now available nationwide when it’s not on CBS or a basic ESPN channel. Thanks to ESPN (and Apple), I now live in a world where it’s frustrating when I can’t pull up a nonconference softball game. G-Day was broadcast nationally, and there was even an alternate stream. For a spring game. It’s all available now, and it’s wonderful.

I doubt that my viewing habits are typical. I’ve never been a regular SportsCenter viewer even in the “Big Show” era, and I can count on one hand the number of hours in a month I might spend on an ESPN channel that isn’t live play-by-play. The 30-for-30 series was fantastic, but that’s about it. If there’s been an editorial shift in programming outside of live sports, I haven’t really been affected. I wasn’t watching anyway. Yes, it’s been impossible to ignore the promos and tie-ins during the games, but quibbling with sports reporters and their narratives isn’t exactly uncharted territory.

So “stick to sports” is how I’ve always approached viewing ESPN, and in that regard it’s never been better. The digital platforms are phenomenal technology. The score app is great, but the evolution of ESPN3 into WatchESPN has been as big of a turning point in how I watch sports as the original ESPN was. Further, ESPN’s presence in the market meant that any network or entity broadcasting sports – from the NCAA to Augusta National – had to provide a comparable experience, and the home sports viewer is better for it. Streams are expected now. There’s enough available now to actually affect attendance trends – why go through the expense and hassle of going to a game when you can gorge on quality HD broadcasts of your game and several others?

The selfish part of me now wonders what happens to this content. ESPN has been able to raise its carriage fees even in the face of the market trend of cord-cutting, but even they can’t avoid the consequences of a dwindling pool of subscribers. Yes, it’s possible that some households decided they could do without ESPN because of politics, and live sports is the one thing keeping many of people attached to their cable or dish subscription. But that revenue pool is still shrinking. Today it affected ESPN itself and several of its journalists. Down the road ESPN will have decisions to make about the money it spends on its content and technology platforms. It will have decisions to make about bidding for broadcast rights. Those decisions will of course trickle down to things you and I care about – college sports, the SEC, and the precious revenue stream we’ve come to count on from those broadcast rights.

I have no idea where it’s headed or whether the current level of content is sustainable. For my sake, I hope it is. I could take or leave ESPN’s journalism. There’s not much of a shortage of sports journalism, and I expect we’ll see many of these bylines reappear at other outlets soon. What is unique and more difficult to replace is access to the games. Unfortunately that’s the most expensive part of this enterprise and where both broadcaster and broadcast rights holder are likely to feel the pinch.



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