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Does the future of sports media belong to ESPN?

For the last few decades, ESPN has been the unquestioned “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” What started as a Connecticut based, Connecticut focused, 24-hour sports network has now become more than ten popular channels across the world (including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, and ESPN Deportes) and a highly-trafficked website ( devoted to delivering the latest sports news all day, every day. ESPN also boasts a very popular, bi-weekly magazine.

In the short term (10-15 years), ESPN will continue to dominate for three simple reasons.

1. Distribution. ESPN’s reach is massive, on and offline. As mentioned, they have more than ten sports networks across the world, as well as (nearly 5 million unique visitors in the month of January), and a big-time magazine. ESPN has also delved into the world of social media, with more than a half million combined Facebook fans and Twitter followers. It’s hard to beat that kind of power.

2. Access. ESPN reporters and employees often obtain breaking sports news first, because people (athletes, agents, PR agencies, etc) know ESPN has the most reach and the most credibility. ESPN has built a strong reputation over the years of being the first to break news. At this point, even if they aren’t first, they often times get credit because they are so mainstream.

3. Culture. Most sports fans watch at least one airing of SportsCenter or check at least once per day. In our culture, even people who couldn’t care less about sports know about ESPN. Ask those same people what YardBarker or FanHouse is, and they won’t have the slightest idea. ESPN has dominated for too long to die so quickly.

In the long term, I think ESPN is in some trouble. They have made significant strides to be more social. Most on-air talent and many shows have social media accounts and interact nicely. For example, Pardon The Interruption asks Twitter followers to suggest topics on a daily basis. It’s not their fault that they’re in trouble, they just are. In a nutshell, it comes down to the argument that mainstream media is dying. In ten or fifteen years, traditional journalists and reporters will be replaced by bloggers. Cable television will collapse. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

There are too many talented and knowledgeable sports professionals and content creators (e.g. SportsNetworker) outside of ESPN for them to not be in trouble. Pretty soon, there will be a web version of SportsCenter that is a hell of a lot more interactive than ESPN’s version will be. ESPN is a slow-moving corporation. I just feel like they won’t be able to keep up with the times.

What about the argument that in ten or fifteen years, athletes, teams, and leagues will have no reason to feed ESPN any information? If OchoCinco (hypothetically, obviously he won’t be playing in ten years) wants to do a news conference, he’ll turn to Ustream or the OCNN to send out his message. Not ESPN. Sure, ESPN aggregates sports information, and does it well. But that might not be the case down the line.

These are very much scrambled thoughts. Obviously, who knows what ESPN will look like in the future? What do you think? What does the future of sports media look like?


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23 Responses to Does the future of sports media belong to ESPN?

  1. sleon March 31, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    Sam, you hit this article out of the ballpark! We've seen the result of newspapers, and tv networks are next. We're living in interesting times

  2. AshRead March 31, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Sam, nice post.

    We have a similar situation over here with Sky Sports. Over the past 15-20 year Sky Sports has taken over sports broadcasting, and is the first port of call for most sports fans. I often watch a few updates a day and check the site a couple of times too. They also have a similar social media following to ESPN with nearly half a million combined fans/followers.

    As far as the future, things will change, like you say there a too many talented bloggers and writers out there. Some football teams have also started to broadcast their pre match press conferences online meaning you don't need to tune into Sky to keep up with your team (you do have to pay for a premium membership though!).

    I feel that the developments in tech will mean Sky/ESPN will have to start caring more about the smaller teams. At the moment the majority of time is focused on the big teams and major sports. As soon as an online show can gain some of the access that Sky has then they may be in trouble. That said maybe Sky/ESPN could get hold of some of these talented bloggers, vbloggers etc and produce online content for more teams.

    I think ESPN have started producing more localised sites? So maybe they could start producing localised video updates and shows too.

    I can't ever see ESPN or Sky becoming completely irrelevant due to footage rights they own and the £/$'s they can invest, but, I think they will have to start planning for the future now, or they will lose some of their audience!

  3. Anita Lobo March 31, 2010 at 2:34 pm #


    First, complements on raising an interesting question. ESPN is the first port of call for serious sports fans, you would think almost worldwide.

    From an India perspective, this is one of the few markets worldwide, where ESPN is a 'niche channel' because it doesn't have the footprint/ reach that our general entertainment channels have. So distribution isn't what sells ESPN, but reach to a focused sports audience does.

    ESPN's ability to get distribution of major events, skews the organisation in favour of large format events to recover bidding costs. 'Bigness' carries a trojan – an inability to work with trends early and work with niche sports that become a rage, all-of-a-sudden.

    The other aspect is that the big TV network approach will be challenged by events that are live broadcast on youtube, opening up audiences across the world. Distribution [territorial rights] then becomes almost ordinary, giving pride of place to content and a focused audience that's not constrained by location e.g. the Indian Premier League [cricket] broadcast over youtube.

    As the quality of online broadcast improves and combines with improving tech [HDTV or 3DTV], it could prove to be the slingshot that takes away many sports from ESPN to focused online/ or even other TV channels.

    The other aspect is that sports that are not traditionally TV friendly, may create formats that go straight to online broadcasts.

    Much as I like ESPN, it has started resembling the big banks that went belly-up over the past two years. When an organisation resembles the established 'old guard', a hungry, nimble, new competitor who can upset the applecart isn't far behind!

    Anita Lobo

  4. Pat March 31, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    ESPN has become too self-important, where the shtick in SportsCenter is more important than the sports. There's a little but growing backlash against ESPN that maybe Sam hasn't noticed.

    Now I can get all I need sports-wise from MLB and NFL Network and I don't have to watch SportsCenter. Even Baseball Tonight has become unwatchable for me.

  5. gailsideman March 31, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    I think ESPN will survive and thrive. Despite its ownership of big properties as of late, it sets trends and continues to be the fan's sports source of choice. Little by little it's entering local markets as well, as demonstrated by, Boston, New York, etc. This type of coverage is already challenging local media outlets for eyes.

    As with all media, ESPN will transition along with its fans. What it has to do is remember the little guy — the off-the-mainstream sports that made it a name 30-years-ago, as well as keep fans engaged in its bigger properties via social media … and modesty. It certainly has the leadership to do so.

  6. gosam March 31, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    Pat, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I don't have a television and don't get to watch a ton of SportsCenter, so when I do catch it, I enjoy it a lot. However, I see your point. They are very gimmicky in a lot of ways. In a world where we need content and need it quick, an hour-long sports show with a lot of unnecessary features may be too much.

  7. Umberto Righetti March 31, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    Sam, thought provoking post, well done.

    No doubt we are living in very interesting times. The rapid developments in technology have democratized media. Existing business models are being turned upside down. The concept of a sport selling rights to its major assets to a media company for them to sell space to advertisers and for advertisers to sell to consumers watching the sport's asset via the media company's control of distribution is not the model of the future.

    If you look at how technology has changed the behavior of the key players in this relationship you soon realize the business model has to change.

    Sports need to take the lead role as this new ballgame unfolds. I like to think that the work our company has been doing with world basketball is a great example of a sport showing leadership and visionary thinking in this area.
    Interesting times ahead for the protagonists involved – sports, media companies, brand advertisers and consumers.

    To paraphrase two of my musical heroes, Paul Weller and Bob Dylan, “this is a modern consumer-centric world and the times they are a changin”

  8. gosam March 31, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Ash, appreciate the insightful comment. It's interesting to hear about the issues with Sky Sports as well. You're right that ESPN is producing localized sites. Just don't think that will be enough. We'll see. The footage rights is an interesting argument as well. As long as they have those, they will be in play. However, I think we both agree that the longer they go without adapting, the more and more they put themselves in danger.

  9. gosam March 31, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Santiago, appreciate the kind words. We're in a very interesting time. A couple of years ago, I never would have thought about “the end of ESPN,” but times have changed!

  10. gosam March 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Gail, awesome insights! ESPN has so much going for them, that it's hard to think they'll ever be in too much trouble. Their localized sites are definitely an asset and it was/is a smart move by ESPN. However, being that they are such a big corporation, is it possible to think that they will be too slow to adapt? What about on-air talent finding new opportunities or wanting to branch out on their own? Obviously, there probably isn't a better opportunity than ESPN _right now_ for sports analysts, but why work for the ESPN brand when you can grow your own? Just a thought.

  11. gosam March 31, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    Anita, thanks for the comment! Great to hear your perspective, especially since you come from a country where ESPN is 'niche.' You bring up fantastic points, and I think we agree in the sense that ESPN might be in some trouble.

  12. gailsideman March 31, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Gosam —

    If you're a young analyst, few places rival ESPN for making a name for yourself. Established veterans beloved by viewing audiences are what the network has a problem holding onto in some cases (see Dan Patrick, Peter Gammons and others). There are so many faces of ESPN now, that it can be hard to keep track.

    ESPN is Disney's most valuable asset based on numbers. I have every believe that it will do all it can to be forward thinking and adaptable to the ever-changing mediasphere.

  13. gosam March 31, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Agreed, 100%. For now, there is no better place for young analysts than ESPN. I just think there is a chance, even with Disney's backing, that they will always be one step behind, which could haunt them.

  14. gosam March 31, 2010 at 7:11 pm #

    Umberto, thank you for the comment. Glad to hear you liked the post. You're right. In this day in age, brands have to be visionary and proactive, rather than reactive.

  15. The Sports Resume March 31, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    Sports Media is ESPN's to loose. At over $4/month per subscriber, the highest cost cable channel, this company is nothing more than a Cash Cow for Disney. I like the content, but I don't see any “real” competition in the near future.

  16. gosam March 31, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    ESPN is so clearly the leader at this point. I think we're talking 5, 10, even 15 years down the line. Hard to predict anything that far away, but look how much has changed in the last 10 years! The question becomes whether or not ESPN can do enough to keep up with the times. I definitely don't have that answer, not yet.

  17. Bryan Brackney April 1, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    Great article, I don't usually comment on blogs, but I just thought about adding my two cents. As of right now, I don't think the future in sports reporting is even out there.

  18. Sam April 1, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    ESPN leaves a VERY bad taste in my mouth. Being Canadian, I may not see ESPN and ESPN2 everywhere like my American brothers, but I have the same access to the internet and go on every now and then.

    Keep in mind even BEFORE all the social media craze and the fact that Allen Iverson could announce his new contract on twitter and all that jazz, I already had this thought:

    Who the hell is Chad Ford and why should I pay to read his stuff? In my humble opinion, he may be a terrific writer and deserves whatever accolades he receives, but in my mind, he is just another DJ (to steal Gary V's term) for sports news. Information is free, and I'd rather hear your opinion than his because in my mind, it's just as valid and I don't have to whip out my visa.

    There are a lot of schmucks out there (even those who's fulltime job IS to cover sports), but there are also a lot of valid sports people within forums, chatrooms, so on so forth and their thoughts and opinions are just as valuable to me.

  19. Sam April 1, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    props for not having a tv!

  20. gosam April 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    it's more because of laziness (ironic, huh) that i don't have a tv. believe it or not, i miss ESPN the most of all!

  21. gosam April 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    Bryan, really appreciate you commenting on this post. Can you expand on your thought a bit?

  22. gosam April 1, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Sam, great point. As information begins to fall behind paid walls (e.g. ESPN Insider), people will head elsewhere to find the same or similar content for free. Granted, ESPN does have a lot of very knowledgeable individuals who have been working in sports for longer than I have been alive, but that is the beauty of this world we live in. Everyone has a voice, and sometimes the “best” ones have the smallest audiences, or vice versa.

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