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ESPN Was Always Going to Suffer Once Social Media Hit Critical Mass

Layoffs at the massive sports network reflect a world no longer beholden to recap shows.

by Bryan Rose
Apr 26 2017, 8:30pm

Image: BrazilPhoto/Shutterstock

ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, today announced a series of layoffs that are expected to affect as many as 100 employees, with reports suggesting many of these cuts affecting on-air talent. John Skipper, ESPN's president, said the layoffs were a necessary response to factors outside of his company's control, namely the way you, me, and everyone else with a passing interest in sportsball consume media today.

He has a point. Within minutes of FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi scoring the winning goal against Real Madrid over the weekend, fans could instantly watch and rewatch his work of art on "online platforms" (to use the Silicon Valley term) like Reddit and YouTube. Assuming you didn't have the good fortune to watch the game live, why would you wait around for an airing of SportsCenter, the cable network's flagship show, to give you the rundown of what happened?

It's a similar story with other sports. Fans who can't get enough baseball, for example, can follow any number of Instagram accounts belonging to players, teams, or Major League Baseball itself that all provide more than enough video content to stay fully informed. I haven't watched a minute of the Mets on TV this year but I have a pretty good handle on how they're doing. Even Formula 1, which for years had a pretty terrible online presence, now has a serviceable YouTube channel. Bad news if your business model is predicated upon monetizing once-scarce highlights, and worse news if the young, largely male sports audience has already moved onto entirely new experiences like Twitch.

All of this is to say that it's not terribly surprising that cord cutting, or dropping cable TV service for cheaper bundles or dropping it altogether, has had an effect on ESPN: the network has lost upwards of 10 million subscribers, putting a dent in usual ratings juggernauts like Monday Night Football.

While ESPN perhaps relied upon its dominance in cable for too long, the network hasn't altogether ignored future trends. The channel is available on a variety of streaming, over-the-top services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, YouTube TV (even if these services only have a small number of subscribers). A streaming network of its own is said to be in the offing, but pertinent questions like "When will it launch?" and "What will it carry?" remain unanswered.

As the old say goes, next year is now.

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