The problems at ESPN have been well documented. They significantly over paid for the rights to the NFL’s Monday Night Football package, paying in the same ballpark as NBC paid for the league’s premier matchup on Sunday Night Football. This move made it impossible for the network to operate profitably. Initially they laid off 4% of their global workforce, but it was all behind the camera workers, not on air talent. However, over the past year there has been significant drain on their talent.
As you tune in to pre-game NFL coverage and other shows, much of the old familiar talent is gone. As you may know, sports fans are creatures of habit. The customer experience for many of these viewers is being trampled on. It would be one thing if you slowly introduced new talent to these flagship programs, but when you tune into shows like Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, with 1 or 2 exceptions, the faces are all new. It disrupts the comfort level that fans have in this programming.
This all comes at a very bad time for ESPN. NFL viewership has been down for each of the past 6 Presidential election years, this year it is off more than any other. Many speculate that it is due to the “Trump effect”. People are tuning in to the political media to see what he says next. Their ratings are up 40% while NFL viewership is down 15%.
There is also a much more crowded market place. Gone are the days when you simply tuned into ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN 3, ESPNews, etc. Now, the major networks, pro sports leagues, NCAA conferences and in some cases individual teams have their own networks. The result is that the market for sports news is becoming much more highly specialized. If I’m looking for news about Big 10 football, why sit through an episode of SportsCenter when I can tune in to the Big 10 Network and see exactly what I want? To compound matters, ESPN’s former talent is being sprinkled about the other options. Fox Sports 1 is a prominent example, taking Colin Cowherd’s show, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, directly form ESPN as well as commentator Skip Bayless who is now partnered with Shannon Sharp on their new show, Undisputed. These are two of many prominent personalities have their own brands and they have left ESPN and will take viewers with them. ESPN should have moved heaven and earth to keep their talent, it was one factor that they had that the other players in the market could not duplicate. It was the source of their customer loyalty.
What differentiated ESPN was that their on air talent felt like you were talking about sports with your friends. That was a huge part of their brand. That feel is gone. What they’ve failed to realize is that the ESPN brand is/was made up largely of the sum of the brands of their on air talent. That talent garnered much loyalty from the viewers and drove the customer experience. That customer experience is now gone. They must move quickly to stop the loss of their personalities and improve the customer experience or, in a market with increasingly appealing options, the ESPN brand will fall by the wayside.
ESPN cannot just assume that viewers will turn to them out of loyalty. As viewers abandon the network to view personalities that they enjoy that are now on other networks, they will be exposed to commercials for other programming on those networks that may interest them. The result will be in increasingly distributed sports audience and ESPN will see its share of that market dramatically reduced.