ESPN Looks In The Mirror, Sees Only Confusion Staring Back

The Worldwide Leader has forgotten how to lead.
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Let's see what's on TV tonight...

ESPN

Ah, 10 p.m. has something promising: "American Supernatural," episode four of season one, titles "Florida's Dead Zone." Here's the synopsis: "In the 1800s. Landowner Henry Sanford enlisted the help of a Catholic Priest to assist in selling plots to German colonists; St. Joseph's Colony and the families that arrived would be doomed from the start."

That's on The Weather Channel. You may remember The Weather Channel as the thing you used to flip to so that you could watch 10 minutes of forecasts for everywhere but your city until they got around to "Local On The 8s," with its Bernie Williams-level smooth jazz background as radar pictures flashed on the screen. Then we all got phones that could tell us the latest weather forecasts with a simple touch on a screen, or, now, by just yelling across the room, "Hey, Siri, what's the weather tomorrow?"

It's easy to understand how The Weather Channel got here, and when you think about it that way, this week's massive layoffs at ESPN make more sense.

SportsCenter hasn't been required viewing for fans for years thanks to the easy availability of highlights online, shouting-based panel shows are basically just a time-killing extension of Twitter, and the only compelling reason to watch the network is when it's showing live games. While people like Jayson Stark, Scott Burnside, and Ed Werder might be indispensable voices in their respective sports, they're not indispensable to ESPN. And now they're not there anymore.

The story playing out now isn’t all that different from what’s been going on in print media for years, either. It’s just a shattering of the notion that ESPN was, if not too big to fail, big enough to be immune to everyone else’s problems – and, of course, it isn’t. Many of ESPN’s problems are self-inflicted, namely in the alienation of non-NFL fans, a problem that only figures to get worse now, but for the most part, the story of ESPN is similar to the story of so many other outlets, sports or not, multi-platform or not.

Cord-cutting only serves to exacerbate the problem, because while it may not make a difference in ESPN’s viewership numbers, losing subscribers means losing carriage fees. If you’re a basic cable customer, you pay for ESPN whether you watch a minute of it or not. As someone who remains a cable customer pretty much exclusively for the sake of live sports, it’s easy to understand how non-sports fans make the choice to go to a streaming-only entertainment experience, thereby leaving ESPN and many other networks in the lurch when they disappear from the consumer base.

While HBO was smart about this, offering itself a la carte on streaming services, ESPN and most other networks only allow you to use their streaming channels if you are a cable subscriber – and in many cases, only a subscriber through certain television providers. This is idiotic. How many people would be willing to pay $5 a month to get ESPN without cable? Multi-channel streaming services like DirecTV NOW are a step in the right direction, but at the moment, ESPN and other networks are leaving a ton of money on the table and leaving a lot of potential customers in the dark.

By the time they wise up, it may well be too late to reverse the decline of what once truly was the worldwide leader in sports. It’s already too late to save the dozens of jobs that were lost this week in Bristol’s dead zone as part of a tale that is plenty American, but unfortunately not at all supernatural.

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