With audience numbers shrinking, ESPN is now left with bloated contracts (and hosts) and a product that no longer jibes with the audience’s taste.
Ratings in a decline for the better part of a decade, ESPN is making cuts that will affect more than just the back of the house. Word spread Monday that The Network will spread its cost-cutting measures all the way to on-air talent and there is no more an illustrative recent departure than that of OG Chris Berman.
Berman, for those who came of age in the ESPN halcyon days of early pay cable, hosted everything from roller derby to ping pong to monster truck rallies all with the hop-skipping enthusiasm of a trail blazer and nary a hint of a comb over — he happily swam upstream in uncharted waters of a new media age in a chartreuse Century 21 junior agent blazer.
Back in 1979, the year of ESPN’s founding, the recent Brown graduate carpetbagged his way to Bristol in lieu of slaving away at a local newspaper or figuring out how to squeeze five days of work into two at a local State Farm. Berman broke the mold for what was required of one to be in front of the camera lens. At an athletic 6’5″, he wasn’t quite a schlub, but you could just as easily picture him handing over a slice of honey baked ham at the deli counter and asking whether that cut was thin enough.
His quotidian ethos stirred up action where there was none. The rote and referential nicknaming gimmick would come later, but the man we’d come to know, to invite into our living rooms, was the smart, genial kid who never completely curried favor of the teacher, nor did he draw much ire. He was, after all, the one who could get you in — and out — of trouble.
Berman is gone now and not just metaphorically. The venerable host of Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown and the opening night NFL draft coverage has left the building. Alas, it was time. Berman, now 61, was ready to move on and thusly so was the network he helped grow into a $50 billion sports-driven data juggernaut that has been in steady recent decline numbers- and revenue-wise.
In the fall of 2016, ESPN cost cable subscribers $7.21 per month. The Network, which boasted 100 million subscribers in 2012, is now in the 88-million-and-shrinking range. Media consultants Magid Advisors reported 5.7% of respondents to a cable/satellite survey age 18 to 64 years old said they were “very likely” to discontinue their cable-TV or satellite subscription in last year. That’s up from one percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2015. Expect that number of cutters to continue to increase exponentially in 2017 and beyond as the Millennial dollar stays far away from trap institutions like pay cable, new car buying, suburban jumbo mortgages and beer that’s not locally brewed.
To compensate, ESPN has had a recent history of quiet(ish) layoffs. In 2015, it parted ways with on-air and web talent Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons, both with bloated contracts and shrinking audiences. Later that year, it laid off more than 300 employees, or about 4% of their workforce, to balance out the balance sheet. Last year, Disney demanded The Network cut more than $100 million from its budget and for the remainder of 2017, the Mouse wants an additional $250 million worth of heads to roll.
ESPN is quickly going the way of the local sportscast and the metro sports section that it helped demolish. Buoyed by personalities like Berman, the prep school bully smarm that has defined The Network and gave a voice in sports and pop culture to the baby boomers has grown cold. Unless one is held captive in a hotel lobby bar at the wrinkled-oxford and saggy-socked end of a 16-hour sales conference day, looking bleary-eyed through that last pint of Goose Island, there is no reason to tune in to see what the talking heads of ESPN have to say.
The Network’s daytime sports blab shows featuring the likes of newsroom barnacles like Woody fucking Paige, JA Adande and, I dunno, Frank Isola, disagreeing sweet nothings over contract disputes, post-game fashion statements and made-up locker room disputes is simply the white in salami. ESPN, for its part, gave life to the early days intenets notion that the more content the better and stronger their toe-hold would be. Now we know more is not necessarily better. And their dearth of originality and quality, save for the occasional magnificent anomaly like OJ: Made in America or this rocknrolla about batshit Tiger Woods, has created a stagnant and predictable voice that glazes over viewers’ eyes and causes them to turn or click elsewhere.
Shuffling around stale on-air talent won’t be the answer either. In this current cost-cutting state, ESPN college football reporter Sam Ponder will be the new host of Sunday NFL Countdown and Suzy Kolber will fill in for Berman on the Monday Night run-up. Holdover from the ’90s Trey Wingo should also see his role expand to help fill Berman’s shoes. Blech.
But the real problem is not with the roster of warmed-over talent coloring up the game, but with ESPN’s erstwhile cash cow, the NFL. ESPN’s monumental contractual obligation to the league bloats in time to waning public interest in professional football. In 2011, ESPN paid $15.2 billion to renew its contract for Monday Night Football through 2021. Last season, MNF ratings took a huge shit, falling off 24 percent from 2015, which only compounded atop the 9 percent they fell off from 2014.
The slump in prime time ratings for the once-venerable, highest-rated weekly show on cable is due to both an increase in competition and a decrease of intrigue. Be it due to slow play, an interminable number commercials/pauses, a revolt against concussions or too many bingewatchable seasons of Black Mirror, the NFL’s TV ratings dropped a cumulative 14 percent in 2016.
Ironically, ESPN was the first network to artificially pump up these ratings scorching the Earth as the only 24-hour sports network and the alternative to waiting for one special locally televised game a week. Suddenly, scarcity was nil and a seemingly endless menu with access to every region gave rise to fantasy leagues and fan interest across time zones. As a result, the professional leagues saw unprecedented audience growth and could demand huge TV contracts, which led to higher salaries and added commas and zeros to the valuations of franchises. Now there isn’t a single MLB, NFL or NBA franchise not worth at least one billion dollars with the Detroit Lions’ current valuation ($1.44 billion) is among the lowest across all leagues.
ESPN is not completely done yet. It is seeing an increase in viewership of MLS games as well as steady numbers if not a slight uptick of MLB and college basketball audiences. And they still are in position to bring in younger, more compelling talent that has stock lines you don’t hear from your dad.
But The Network and its parent company must recognize that viewership metrics as we know them are kaput.
We live in a time when driving your new F-150 to Outback after you peruse the Best Buy and Home Depot to put stuff in your three-car garage as you crack a Bud and sit-down mow your .32-acre lawn before you tune into Sunday NFL Countdown as you fire up the outdoor kitchen is no longer the dream. It’s now ride your fixie to get a pour over as you meet up with friends at your rising metro’s version of Greenpoint Playground to talk about opening an artisanal cheese shop next to the one that closed four months ago because they only imported, yours will be made onsite. If someone has an Odell Beckham Jr.-sized one-handed-grab highlight cued up on their phone, great.
If not, no biggie. Ain’t missing out.