Internal Analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Competitive Advantage

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ESPN in 2015 Continued Dominance in Sports Television?

“If you’re a fan, what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours, and days to follow may convince you, you’ve gone to sports heaven.” —Lee Leonard, September 7, 1979. The first on-air words at ESPN John Skipper, president and CEO of ESPN since 2012, sat at his desk and intently reviewed comments by Bob Iger, Disney CEO, and his direct boss, during last night’s earnings call: “I’d like to address an issue that has been receiving a fair amount of interest and attention these days and that’s the rapidly changing media landscape especially as it relates to ESPN. We are realists about the business and about the impact technology has had on how product is distributed, marketed, and consumed. We are also quite mindful of potential trends among younger audiences, in particular many of whom consume television in very different ways than the generations before them … ESPN is the number one brand in sports media and one of the most valuable brands in all sports and among the most popular, respected and valuable brands in media, by consumers, advertisers, and distributors. This is supported by the fact that in the first calendar quarter of this year alone, 83% of all multichannel households turn to ESPN at some point.” As Skipper looked up, his eyes focused on ESPN’s newest building at the sprawling 200-plus acre Bristol, Connecticut campus, DC-2. DC-2 was ESPN’s 18th building and featured the state of the art in television broadcasting, with 194,000 square feet, 114 television screens and monitors, 1,100 miles of copper wire, the ability to broadcast SportsCenter in 4 K, 8 K, 3-D, and even a floating “CableCam” that treated visitors to an NFL playing field experience. He reflected on the vast size of ESPN’s current campus, remembering that ESPN originated from temporary trailers on a less than a single acre in 1979. Skipper’s mind raced forward, wondering if and how this new investment would pay off in a world with almost overwhelming technological risk to media companies. When sports news traveled instantaneously over Twitter and social media, and with the rise of free video streaming, Skipper wondered about ESPN’s relevance, competitive advantage, and revenue stream. Was ESPN ready for the next wave of disruption? How could ESPN maintain and grow its dominant position in sports programming?

The Beginning The idea that gave birth to ESPN hatched over two days, May 30–31, 1978. Bill Rasmussen, an ex-collegiate baseball player and sports nut, had just been fired as the communications director for the New England (Hartford) Whalers hockey club. As Bill and his son Scott sat around the house the night of May 30, Bill discussed a vague set of ideas about using the new technology of cable TV to broadcast New England sports. The next day Bill and Scott watched intently as two of their associates played videotapes of local hot air balloons and spoke about a local show broadcasting live sports. Suddenly, Rasmussen blurted out an idea: “What about live sports? Just Connecticut sports on cable. Could we do that?” The new dream proved exciting, but Rasmussen lacked three critical resources: access to the satellite technology to provide a cable feed, programming content to fill the airwaves, and money to make the whole project work. Cable TV was a nascent industry mostly limited to rural viewers, and RCA Corporation had launched a communications satellite three years earlier in hopes of selling transponder time to buyers hoping to reach the cable market. By mid-1978, RCA was desperate to find buyers. Rasmussen approached RCA about buying transponder time for five hours per night. The price? $1,250 per night. Al Parinello, the RCA salesman, told Rasmussen that he could lease another transponder, one that would provide the buyer with 24/7 transmission capability for $35,000 per month. Rasmussen’s network could broadcast all day and night for less than it could for five hours per day. The new network would be Rasmussen’s (and other fans’) dream: all sports, all the time. Realizing that 24/7 programming would outstrip every event in Connecticut, Rasmussen worked his relationship with John Toner, the University of Connecticut’s athletic director. Toner put Rasmussen in touch with Walt Byers, the powerful head of the NCAA. Rasmussen’s proposal to the NCAA outlined the network’s, now named Entertainment and Sports Programming TV (ESP-TV), early strategy: ESP-TV intends to complement rather than compete with current NCAA television contractual agreements. We propose to extend football’s national television coverage to more schools and to add many other sports, including every championship, to our nationwide network … [ESP-TV will] provide national exposure to more institutions and student athletes than ever before possible…. ESP-TV proposes to work very closely with the NCAA to develop schedules in all sports that will maximize our mutually stated goals. The NCAA held out, partially because Byers didn’t believe that Rasmussen’s network would see the light of day. Bill and Scott had convinced several local backers to throw in money, and they had maxed out their own personal credit cards to start the venture. J. B. Doherty, one of those investors, contacted Stuart Evey, vice president of Getty Oil’s diversified division. Evey, a huge sports fan and astute investor, saw the opportunity in cable and convinced Getty to invest $10 million into the fledgling ESP-TV. On the day in February 1979 that Getty Oil invested, Rasmussen closed the deal with






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the NCAA. With the addition of a $1.38 million advertising contract from Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser beer, the new network, rechristened as ESPN, was ready to launch. Evey soon realized that making ESPN successful would require more than Bill Rasmussen’s vision and sales abilities. Evey recruited Chet Simmons, who had helped launch ABC’s Wide World of Sports and currently the head of NBC’s sports, to lead the new network. Simmons raided NBC for other talent, none more important than Scotty Connal, a thirty-year NBC veteran and excellent producer. Connal would use all of his skills to stretch ESPN’s meager resources to bring a champagne product to market on a beer budget. Connal taught his staff to make two cameras do the work of five. Connal exemplified the new hires, and the hiring policy, at ESPN. The first question for potential hires: “What section of the newspaper do you read first?” If the answer wasn’t the sports section, the interview often ended. If sports was first, the next questions dealt with the greatest successes and heartaches of the candidate’s favorite teams. If the new network delivered content to sports fanatics, that content would be produced, directed, and delivered by sports fanatics. Rasmussen’s initial pitch to the NCAA became the bedrock of ESPN’s search for content. Shut out from the “big time” of sports—the NFL, the NCAA’s best football games, Major League Baseball, and the NBA—ESPN filled the airwaves with all types of NCAA sports, from expanded football coverage, including every bowl game not televised by the major networks, to volleyball to hockey to Division III events. The new network took other big risks, reaching out to underserved sports fans like NASCAR fans, contracting to broadcast NASCAR events in 1981. Simmons convinced the NFL, whose owners had rejected a cable contract to televise games by a vote of 32-0, to allow ESPN to broadcast the annual NFL draft in April 1980. Roger Werner, ESPN’s third CEO, reflected on this early strategy: “I think one of the smartest things the company did in the early days was to look at the marketplace and ask ourselves: Where can we build consumer franchises that are really unique and where none of the big competitors are playing to any significant degree?…. We carved out a lot of new territory.” The new network, even with taped-delay games and a schedule filled with minor sporting events, continued to gain a loyal and growing viewer base among sports fans. In fact, by 1982 the network had been named in a divorce suit by a woman in Texas who claimed ESPN ruined her marriage by capturing the entire attention of her husband.

The 1980s and 1990s: Growth and Expansion ESPN continued to gain viewers, content, and advertisers, but Getty Oil still pumped money into the venture. By 1984, Getty would invest a total of $67 million to keep the venture afloat. Chet Simmons left ESPN to run a new professional football league, the USFL, in 1982. Bill Grimes, a former CBS executive, took the helm at ESPN. That same year, Evey hired McKinsey and Company to help figure out how to make the business profitable. Roger Werner acted as lead consultant on that engagement. ESPN originally hoped to attract viewers on an individual subscription basis, but the small numbers of cable viewers in the late 1970s doomed this revenue model before it launched. ESPN viewed itself as a nationwide network, and so it adopted the business model common in the Big 3 (ABC, CBS, and NBC) networks: the network paid local affiliates a small fee for the right to transmit its content to the local station, and the bulk of revenue came from advertising. Werner realized that ESPN had one revenue source (advertising), but three cost sources (programming costs, off-camera costs, and the affiliate fee). He proposed a new model: If ESPN could “flip” the affiliate fee and get cable providers to pay the network for the right to carry it to viewers, then ESPN could use the new revenue to improve the breadth and quality of its content. Werner and Grimes bet that a better product would attract more viewers to cable, and both the providers and ESPN would benefit. In 1983, ESPN began charging providers $0.05 per subscriber per month. The fee rose rapidly, first to $0.20 per month, and reached $0.70 per month by the end of the decade. With its newfound revenue, ESPN turned a profit by 1985. Exhibit 1 displays ESPN’s financial data, including its subscription fees. Figure 1 illustrates long-term financial trends at ESPN.

ESPN only, all numbers in 000s

1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 (est)

Net Advertising Revenue

240,000 395,000 825,000 1,117,695 1,585,184 1,691,694 1,769,830 1,868,350 1,950,389 2,079,281

Affiliate Revenue

295,944 524,649 1,080,294 3,307,567 5,235,612 5,693,335 5,972,561 6,501,108 7,007,944 7,506,226

Other Operating Revenue

15,000 80,000 108,000 83,338 33,163 78,993 71,093 75,359 30,144 31,952

Net Operating Revenue

550,944 999,649 2,013,294 4,508,600 6,853,959 7,464,021 7,813,484 8,444,817 8,988,477 9,617,459



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ESPN only, all numbers in 000s

1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 (est)

Operating SG&A

94,400 162,300 216,710 235,217 264,310 267,548 260,859 271,555 279,701 288,092

Programming Expense

321,000 539,397 1,212,200 3,086,272 4,746,929 4,984,276 5,333,175 5,706,497 6,230,952 6,729,428

Total Operating Expense

415,400 701,697 1,428,910 3,321,489 5,011,239 5,251,824 5,594,034 5,978,052 6,510,653 7,017,520

Cash Flow ($000)

135,544 297,952 584,384 1,187,111 1,842,720 2,212,197 2,219,450 2,466,765 2,477,823 2,599,938

Affiliate Revenue per Average Subscriber per Month ($)

0.44 0.67 1.14 3.08 4.39 4.77 5.04 5.54 6.10 6.61

Change in Subscription Rate

52.3% 70.1% 170.2% 42.5% 8.7% 5.7% 9.9% 10.1% 8.4%

Subscribers (millions)

57.3 68 80.5 90.1 99.8 99 98.5 97 94.6 94.5

Change in Total Subscribers

19% 18% 12% 11% –1% –1% –2% –2% –0.1%

Source: SNL Kagan

1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 (est)

Net Operating Revenue

550,944 999,649 2,013,294 4,508,600 6,853,959 7,464,021 7,813,484 8,444,817 8,988,477 9,617,459

Total Operating Expense

415,400 701,697 1,428,910 3,321,489 5,011,239 5,251,824 5,594,034 5,978,052 6,510,653 7,017,520

Cash Flow ($000)

135,544 297,952 584,384 1,187,111 1,842,720 2,212,197 2,219,450 2,466,765 2,477,823 2,599,938

Exhibit 1ESPN Selected Financial Data

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Figure 1ESPN Financial Performance, 1990–2015

ESPN continued to search for new and innovative content throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. The network broadcast the finals of the America’s Cup yachting race in 1983 and broadcast the entire event in 1987 from Australia. ESPN placed a mini-cam and live microphones on American skipper Dennis Connor’s yacht to capture the excitement and intensity of the race. Viewed as a risky venture in 1987, new camera angles, “mic’d up” athletes, and complete coverage soon became the norm in cutting-edge sports television. ESPN contracted with the NFL in 1987 to broadcast eight games per year for $55 million per game: The network had arrived in the Big Time! Within 10 years, the network would hold broadcast rights for every major professional league and sport in the United States, and other global leagues. Exhibit 2 presents a timeline of many of these key events. The network continued to expand its content offerings and its international presence as well. By the early 1990s, a viewer could find some form of ESPN in 120 countries. In 1993, ESPN founded the ESPYs, the sporting world’s version of the Academy Awards. The show became an instant hit and has provided many memorable moments, such as cancer-stricken NCAA basketball coach Jim Valvano’s moving speech in 1993.

Date President Owner Growth Notable

1979 Getty Oil $10MM investment grows to $67MM

1979 Chet Simmons Started ABC’s Wide World of Sports

1980 NFL Draft Coverage First entry into NFL programming

1981 NASCAR Contract Brings NASCAR to national scene

1983 Bill Grimes Former CBS executive

1984 ABC Buys ESPN for $237MM

1987 Americas Cup First “mic’d up” performer

1987 First NFL Contract $55MM per game for 8 games/year

1988 Roger Werner Architect of business model change

1990 Steve Bornstein Started at ESPN in 1980

1992 ESPN Radio Sports Talk Radio

1993 ESPN2 X-Games, new demographic

1993 ESPYs Sporting equivalent to Academy Awards

1994 Original Web Presence



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Date President Owner Growth Notable

1996 Disney ESPN Valued at $5BB of $19BB purchase

1996 ESPNews News & entertainment

1997 ESPN Classic Archived Sporting Events

1998 George Bodenheimer Begins at ESPN as mail clerk

1998 ESPN the Magazine Compete with Sports Illustrated

1998 ESPN Zone Restaurants

2001 ESPN Deportes Spanish Language Channel & Radio

2002 ESPN+ Expansion to South America

2005 ESPNU Focus on Collegiate Sports

2008 ESPN Films Scripted Drama, Documentary

2011 Journalistic website and blog posts

2011 Longhorn Network First entry into regional TV markets

2012 John Skipper Founded ESPN The Magazine

2014 SEC Network Focus on SEC Sporting Events

2014 Disney ESPN valued at $50BB

Sources: Case writer compilation from sources in footnotes Exhibit 2ESPN Selected Timeline of Key Events

By decade’s end, the E (entertainment) in ESPN would expand as the network created a new division, ESPN films, to create original content, both documentary and dramatic. The division’s first project was the Sports Century series. The project began with a panel of forty-eight experts who identified the top 100 athletes of the twentieth century. Sports Century created fifty 30-minute documentaries on the top 50 athletes and events. ESPN supplemented these films with complementary materials on its website, magazine, radio network, and across all other media platforms in the company. The series garnered an Emmy for the network and its first Peabody Award for excellence in radio and television broadcasting. More importantly, Sports Century turned a profit and highlighted the power of ESPN’s integrated media empire in bringing content to viewers.

SportsCenter and the ESPN Brand At the center of that sprawling empire lay ESPN’s initial program. What began in 1979 as Sports Central had morphed into SportsCenter, the heart and soul of ESPN’s value proposition and business culture. George Grande and Lee Leonard, decked out in orange sport coats on an orange set—to highlight the ownership of Getty Oil—ad libbed most of the first 30-minute segment because few people really imagined that a sports report, usually limited to two minutes at the end of a newscast, could find enough content to fill 30 minutes. By the time Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick turned SportsCenter into must-see-TV, their 30-minute segment would be repeated four to six times each day with little loss in viewership. The appeal of a 30-minute sports show appealed to sports broadcasters because they loved the idea of plying their trade for 10 to 15 times the amount of time they were allowed at local stations. Thirty minutes provided ample time to report the news, but also to provide analysis, deeper stories, and ample doses of humor. From Leonard and Grande onward, SportsCenter anchors adopted an attitude that “What do we have to lose—no one is watching anyway.” But viewers did watch, and the off-beat nature of SportsCenter changed in June 1980 when Chris (“Boomer”) Berman transformed Kansas City Royals first baseman John Mayberry into “John Mayberry RFD.” Berman’s improvisational nicknames for other baseball players, such as Sammy “say



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it ain’t” Sosa and Albert “Winnie the” Pujols, and his role as the “Swami” transformed SportsCenter into an entertaining improv performance that attracted a dedicated following. Berman would anchor SportsCenter until 1986, and remains one of the networks premier personalities today. The nature of SportsCenter changed in 1988 when Steve Bornstein, then Executive VP of Programming and Production, brought in John Walsh, founder of Inside Sports and former head of Rolling Stone Magazine, to look at SportsCenter. Bornstein, who would become ESPN’s fourth president two years later, told Walsh: “SportsCenter is the only thing we don’t pay rights for, so this is our most efficient financial vehicle, and I want you to turn it into the Sports Illustrated of television.” Walsh, with a degree in journalism and a history in print media, began to hire sports journalists—not merely on-camera personalities—to staff and lead SportsCenter. The show transformed from a lovable and entertaining 30 minutes with the likes of Boomer Berman into a “virtual gathering place where sports fans could ‘assemble’ every night, not just to hang out but to learn something.” Walsh’s imprint was to provide more breaking news and richer coverage from true journalists, and better highlights and visuals to attract viewers. Walsh believed that the SportsCenter franchise should always be something bigger than a personality-driven program. If Chris Berman brought SportsCenter into national prominence, Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick sent the show into the stratosphere. The two men co-anchored their first SportsCenter on April 5, 1992. During that show, the anchors, the staff, and probably the viewers sensed a special chemistry between Keith and Dan. That chemistry, combined with their innate talents as journalists and writers to create a SportsCenter that one commentator wrote “had all the qualities of chocolate cake: rich, filling ingredients of news and highlights thickly frosted with humor.” Their SportsCenter aired live at 11:00 p.m. but would be rebroadcast six times in the next 24 hours. Bill Belichick, then coach of the Cleveland Browns, typified many fans and watched all six reruns. When asked by Olbermann why, Belichick responded, “I know all the punch lines by then. I get to do the jokes.” The Olbermann and Patrick partnership ended in 1998 when the mercurial Olbermann jumped to a new cable sports competitor: Fox Sports 1. Roger Werner began preaching about the importance of the brand during his tenure as president (1988-1990); Steve Bornstein (1990-1998) and George Bodenheimer (1998-2012) continued to beat the drum. Lee Ann Daly, a marketing executive with a New York advertising background, helped Bodenheimer refine and reframe the brand. From its position at the top of the sports world, ESPN could call the shots on how fans received their sports, but Daly argued that the essence of ESPN’s brand, a deep and intimate human connection with fans and the sports they loved, required a humbler, kinder approach. The ESPN brand changed from being the “worldwide leader in sports television” to “we’re the world’s biggest sports fan, and we exist solely to serve fans wherever they are.” The company revised its mission statement to reflect this new attitude: “to serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about, or played.” Or, as Bodenheimer called it “sports fans serving sports fans.”

The 21 Century: Continued Dominance & Looming Challenges As the ESPN brand continued to grow, so did demand for sports programming. In 1983, ESPN offered cable providers a radical proposition, they should pay ESPN $0.05 a month per subscriber for the right to carry the network. These rates increased consistently over the years to the point that in 2015, ESPN was charging a whopping $6.61 per subscriber (Exhibit 3 compares subscription rates for the top 10 cable channels in 2015). It was by far the most expensive cable network on television, charging four times more than the nearest competitor. That amount reflects both the demand by sports viewers as well as the market power of the ESPN brand in creating and delivering sports content. Exhibit 4 lists the top 15 sports networks, the estimated number of subscribers, and approximate amounts of revenue (in 2014) generated by each.

Network Fee

ESPN $ 6.61

TNT $ 1.65

Disney Channel $ 1.34

NFL Network $ 1.31

Fox News $ 1.12

USA Network $ 1.00

FS1 (Fox Sports 1) $ 0.99

TBS $ 0.85

ESPN2 $ 0.83

Nickelodeon $ 0.73




15 16


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Source: SNL Kagan Exhibit 3The Ten Most Expensive Cable Channels, 2015

Network Fee Subscribers (millions) Revenue (billions)

ESPN $ 6.61 94.5 $ 7.50

NFL Network $ 1.31 73.6 $ 1.16

FS1 $ 0.99 91.2 $ 1.08

ESPN2 $ 0.83 94.5 $ 0.94

SEC Network $ 0.66 69.1 $ 0.55

Golf Channel $ 0.35 79.4 $ 0.33

NBC Sports Network $ 0.30 83.1 $ 0.30

Big Ten Network $ 0.39 62  $ 0.29

MLB Network $ 0.26 71.3 $ 0.22

FS2 $ 0.28 64  $ 0.22

NBA TV $ 0.29 57.2 $ 0.20

ESPNU $ 0.22 74.9 $ 0.20

CBS Sports Network $ 0.26 61  $ 0.19

NHL Network $ 0.32 37.4 $ 0.14

Pac 12 Network $ 0.39 12.3 $ 0.06

Source: SNL Kagan Exhibit 4The top 15 Sports Networks, 2015

By 2014, ESPN generated six times more revenue than its nearest competitor. This allowed for continued separation from other sports networks and, according to some, complete domination of certain markets. Expert reports estimated that ESPN spends roughly $1.9 billion per year for Monday Night Football, $1.47 billion for rights to NBA games, $700 million for Major League Baseball, and hundreds of millions for college football (SEC, ACC, Big 10, etc.). ESPN’s broadcasting contracts put the company on the hook for $6 billion dollars annually to broadcast more than half the live sports shown on TV. In the 1990s, ESPN helped NASCAR move from a niche viewing audience to a national obsession. In the 2000s, ESPN did the same for college football.

College Football: ESPN as the Market Leader Two things highlight ESPN’s dominance of college football. First, ESPN has turned the college bowl season into a national event. By 1991, ESPN had purchased enough rights to bowl games that it created a Bowl Week promotion for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. In 2015, ESPN still broadcast all but two games of the bowl season, which has been retitled as Bowl Month. The 2015 bowl season featured a record forty games, and in order to fill all the bowl slots, the NCAA had to relax the rule that no team with a losing record could play in a bowl. Second, ESPN and its affiliate networks televised around 450 games in the 2015 season alone, almost 35 games each week. The nearest competitor, Fox Sports, broadcast around 50. All other sports networks combined could not come close to competing with ESPN’s total domination of college football. ESPN has transformed college football from games played almost exclusively on Saturdays to a full slate of games on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights, and 12-14 hours on Saturday, excluding its fabled College Game Day pre-show and post-game wrap-ups.




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ESPN worked to create what it considered “ideal match-ups,” and constantly brokered deals with schools and conferences to create games that would optimize viewership. ESPN also used the lure of viewers to change game days (for example, from a Saturday afternoon to a Monday night), or game times (some games on the West Coast begin in the morning to accommodate an East Coast audience). ESPN employed its long-term contracts with major conferences, as well as its promise of millions of eyeballs to set up a growing number of one-off match-ups. Athletic programs might feel beholden to ESPN and see their schedules dictated by the interests of the network. Some schools claimed that ESPN had been overly involved in conference realignments, to create to the most ideal potential games in the best television markets. This would be a violation of NCAA rules, and the network vehemently denied any involvement at that level, although it admits to playing an appropriate advisory role. Other stakeholders have cried foul about ESPN’s market power. A spate of news reports signaled a growing discontent with ESPN’s apparent control of college football. For example, one report proclaimed that “ESPN has become both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules, and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players, and coaches.” The shortened game preparation time for teams risked the quality of the on-field product, and increased time away from class by players seemed to run counter to the notion of student-athletes. In spite of these criticisms and realities, most collegiate programs would do nearly anything to be on ESPN because the exposure proves vital for recruiting. Players love to be seen on ESPN, and fans love to watch their teams on ESPN. The combination of access to enormous amounts of revenue and an unflinching commitment to getting the best product on TV has led to more serious accusations as well. In the mid-2000s, the Justice Department responded to complaints of the anti-competitive practice of “warehousing” games. In an effort to have access to the best possible match-ups, ESPN bought the rights to as many teams and games as possible—sometimes more than it even had the capacity to broadcast. College Sports Television (CSTV) accused ESPN of purchasing rights to games and then not broadcasting them. CSTV claimed that ESPN refused to sell those rights to competitors and deprived teams of exposure, and the networks of revenues. Although the Justice Department took no action, the case illustrated the extent of ESPN’s distinctive advantage in the marketplace, an advantage some say borders on an anti-competitive monopoly. ESPN originally sought to “complement” and enhance the NCAA in its quest for exposure. As the twenty-first century rolls on, many wonder if ESPN dictates rather than complements college football.

Looming Challenges Given ESPN’s overwhelming brand power, revenue structure, and the magnitude of its broadcast contracts, its market position seemed insurmountable. According to Forbes, in 2015, the network possessed the 32nd most valuable brand…in the world. ESPN appeared to be in solid position to continue as the runaway market leader in sports entertainment. Yet, a closer look at the future revealed uncertainties that could seriously challenge ESPN’s position. Since 2004, ESPN had seen the rise of potential disruptive competitors in the form on social media (e.g., Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010) and streaming video services (e.g., YouTube in 2005, Netflix in 2007). Social media allowed sports fanatics to get “breaking stories” about their favorite teams and players from the teams and players themselves. One no longer had to wait until the evening’s SportsCenter to catch all the latest news. Streaming video, whether legal or pirated, threatened ESPN’s ability to drive viewership. By 2013, the rise of smartphone technology and mobile viewing options allowed fans to catch games, or highlights, anytime and anywhere on their phones. Exhibit 5A, 5B details changes in viewing patterns between 2013 and 2014. With so many options for entertainment, a growing number of individuals opted out of their cable packages, or “cut the cord” and relied solely on over-the-air or streaming content to meet their entertainment needs. No one could count the “cord nevers,” or young people who never signed up for cable and opted for streaming video instead.

COMPOSITE (Viewers,000s) COMPOSITE (Minutes)

Q3 14 Q3 13 Q3 14 Q3 13

On Traditional TV 282665 283682 141:19 147:01

Watching Time-shifted TV 173305 167142 14:20 13:12

Using a DVD/Blu-Ray Device 139273 141648 5:16 5:24

Using a Game Console 95315 94939 8:14 7:07

Using a Multimedia Device 26872 n/a 2:09 n/a

Using the Internet on a Computer 194527 200013 30:06 27:02

Watching Video on Internet 144141 147678 10:42 6:41

Using any App/Web on a Smartphone 162798 139136 47:35 35:44





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COMPOSITE (Viewers,000s) COMPOSITE (Minutes)

Q3 14 Q3 13 Q3 14 Q3 13

Watching Video on a Smartphone 125686 100588 1:46 1:25

Listening to AM/FMRadio 258734 257420 58:53 60:42

Exhibit 5ATrends in TV Viewership

Average Daily Minutes

Quintile # persons,000s Stream Internet TV

Top 24,552 23.8 62.2 251.0

2nd 24,552 2.7 30.3 237.9

Middle 24,543 0.7 17.9 243.0

Fourth 24,532 0.2 12.7 243.1

Bottom 24,558 0.0 7.2 245.0

Non Streamers 123,240 0.0 1.0 223.1

Total 245,977 2.8 13.6 233.7

Source: Neilsen, Total Audience Report, 2014 Exhibit 5BCross-Platform Media Usage, All Groups

The number of ESPN subscribers peaked in 2010 at 99.8 million. As a result of the constantly shifting options for sports programming consumption, ESPN lost between 5 million and 7 million subscribers between 2011 and 2015. The loss of 5–7 percent of its viewer base reduces both revenue sources. With fewer viewers, ESPN loses clout with advertisers and receives lower rates. The network also loses subscription fees for all its network offerings (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic, for example). And all indications are that this trend will continue in the near-term. In 1983 ESPN flipped the standard network revenue model by charging cable providers for access rights to ESPN’s programming. This contributed to the practice of “bundling” that has become the basic sales platform of cable and satellite providers. Bundling created a package of over-the-air networks, basic programming such as CNN, TNT, and TBS, and specialty channels such as ESPN, HBO, HGTV, and many others. By purchasing the bundle, viewers saved money and had a wider range of viewing options. While some premium channels can be ordered individually (i.e., HBO), networks such as ESPN represented a critical part of a basic bundle. Anyone purchasing a cable or satellite package pays for ESPN—whether they want it or not. The implications of bundling matter for all networks, but for ESPN bundling played an outsized role. A recent report by Fox Sports did some back-of- the-envelope math and drew the following conclusions: (A)round 48 million cable and satellite subscribers watch ESPN every month. That’s a very big number. But it also means that 44 million cable and satellite subscribers pay $6.60 a month for ESPN and don’t watch it in an average month. That means every month ESPN is pocketing $290 million off cable and satellite subscribers who don’t watch the channel. Over the course of a year ESPN makes over $3 billion a year off consumers who don’t watch ESPN. In another report, the same author asked, “Think about how crazy this is. Does any other business—besides insurance—make 75 percent of its money off people who wouldn’t choose to consume the product?” With the advent of streaming video and the move to mobile devices, the historical practice of bundling packages for subscription exhibited signs of vulnerability. Federal legislation had been introduced to break up bundles and force providers to offer a la carte packaging; a 2013 survey of cable subscribers found 92 percent of subscribers willing to purchase cable channels a la carte. The legislation did not pass, but significant support still existed for some sort of legislation, and analysts sensed continued and growing animosity with the practice of bundling in both the public and private sector.





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“Cord-cutting” could significantly affect ESPN’s business model. ESPN had already lost between 5 million and 7 million subscribers, dropping almost 3 million since 2013. The network responded by firing 400 employees and cutting budgets by $400 million. Revenue continued to climb, but only because ESPN had increased its subscription fee by an average of 9.5 percent per year since 2012. If ESPN unbundled itself from cable, a standalone ESPN, at current subscription rates, would be competitive with monthly subscription offerings such as Netflix ($8), Hulu ($8), or Amazon Prime ($8.25 or $99 per year). If, however, a standalone ESPN attracted only half its current subscription base, it would need to charge substantially more than double $6.60 to make up for lost advertising revenue. A Fox Sports report noted: In order to net $6 billion … for all ESPN channels, ESPN would need 20 million yearly subscribers all paying $300 a year just for the ESPN channels. Putting that into context, the NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV is right at 2 million subscribers. If only 2 million households are willing to pay around $300 for every NFL game that they can’t get for free on traditional television, would 18 million more be willing to pay that much for … ESPN? What if the amount that cable can pay for those games has been artificially inflated by the fact that nearly half of all sports cable subscribers never watch ESPN? Effectively, ESPN has been paying for sports with money from people who would never pay for sports themselves?” As Skipper pondered the situation, he was struck by the apparent paradox. His company dominated sports programming and was a key player in every sport, but that dominance belied tectonic changes in technology that threatened ESPN’s source of value added and revenue. Skipper had several questions: 1) how could he assess the real threat from technological change to ESPN? 2) How should ESPN respond? The network had plenty of live sports programming, but how should bread-and-butter programs such as SportsCenter change to be relevant in the new environment? 3) Was American culture changing in a way that threatened the network’s fundamental revenue model? 4) Would continuing to bundle itself into cable packages continue to create value for ESPN? 5) How should ESPN position itself in the new entertainment world to both regain its dominant position and to continue to grow?

Copyright © 2018, 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.



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