Since its launch in 1979, Disney’s ESPN has been a staple within the sporting world. In particular, ESPN’s flagship show Sportscenter, with over 90,000 episodes over the past 40 years, has played a major role in bringing sports highlights and game scores into people’s daily lives.
The introduction of near-constant sports coverage helped fans connect to sports in a way that a newspaper was unable to facilitate. With the introduction of sports-focused content playing within the households of average Americans, individual athletes and sports stars were able to gain a national recognition which was once difficult to come by.
However, the newfound fame of athletes also brought a new, and often unwanted, interest into the personal lives of athletes. Players such as Tiger Woods, Jameis Winston, Michael Vick, Michael Phelps and, most recently, Aaron Hernandez all felt the negative effects of this reporting. Scandals surrounding these athletes have either tarnished their reputations or brought them infamy through exposing personal lives filled with drug abuse, affairs and criminal dealings.
On the other hand, many of these athletes discovered a level of fame which would have never been imaginable in prior years; Tim Tebow became a national phenomenon with his religious style on the field, while Michael Sam created headlines for being the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL. Neither player was particularly talented, but found themselves with an influence that would never have been expected 50 years ago.
Interestingly enough, new media exposure has also intertwined the sports and political worlds in a way which was not nearly as prevalent before SportsCenter and ESPN. Recently, Colin Kaepernick made waves by refusing to stand for the National Anthem in a protest for Black Lives Matter. The act threw him into the national spotlight despite his consistent mediocrity on the field. Professionals have also come under increasing scrutiny for political leanings. Curt Schilling, a former baseball star, was fired as an analyst for ESPN after posting far-right content on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
However, sports fans and the general American public are moving away from cable television. With the rapid ascent of online streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, cable television is quickly losing relevance. The younger generation of college-age Americans are relying more and more on social media and the internet to receive their sports and general news. The ability to gain a sense of personal interaction with athletes or instantly access content on sports team has once again progressed in a way which is unrivaled at any other time — except this time, it isn’t with ESPN.
In addition, live sports are becoming more expensive to carry with millions of dollars exchanging hands in deals for rights to broadcast. However, while sports teams have leveraged their importance into lucrative deals, a decreasing viewer base likely marks the beginning of the end for ESPN. And with the recent layoff of over 100 analysts, reporters and television personalities, the results have already begun to show.
If ESPN hopes to survive in a rapidly changing sports market, the company will have to shift toward a more digital approach and continue to utilize social media. A great precedent was set with the success of MLB’s free live streaming service to college students last season. ESPN could use a similar approach and regain popularity among younger demographics. ESPN could also follow the Hulu and Netflix models in making ESPN’s channels a live-streaming service with monthly payments. Whatever path they decide, one thing remains clear: if Disney hopes to retain its once ubiquitous presence in the sporting world, significant adjustments must be made to ESPN over the next few years.