Did ESPN Really Lose 10 Million Subscribers to Cord-Shaving since 2013?


It’s been interesting to see the reactions to the latest Nielsen cable coverage estimates.

Clay Travis’ piece generated some attention over the weekend and I’m not surprised where he went with it. My view isn’t nearly as apocalyptic as Travis’  but there are reasonable arguments on both sides. “We’re still making a ton of money, just not as much as we used to” isn’t anywhere near optimal but isn’t disastrous either.

What agitates me is when trade folks write stuff like: ESPN Has Lost 10 Million Viewers Since 2013 to Cord Trimming.

I don’t dispute that according to Nielsen estimates ESPN has lost 10 million subscribers although I do not have the data to back that up.

I do have the August 2013 estimates where ESPN was at 97.736 million subscribers. That means in 34 months ESPN is down 8.271 million subscribers according to Nielsen.  However you want to split the hairs, it’s millions of subscribers.

It’s the speculating on the “why” ESPN lost millions of subscribers and then stating that speculation as fact that irritates me.

Relative to the field ESPN’s subscriber losses are certainly more pronounced because ESPN makes so much more per subscriber than its peers. And relative to the field, ESPN has lost more subscribers. But maybe not as many more as you think:

(in millions):

Channel Aug-13 Jun-16 Difference
CNN 98.496 92.517 -5.979
ESPN 97.736 89.465 -8.271
TBS 99.231 92.828 -6.403
USA 98.647 92.721 -5.926

In round numbers other big nets lost 6 million subscribers over 34 months while ESPN lost 8 million. To get to the question of whether ESPN lost 8 million or 10 million subscribers due to slimmed-down TV packages, it’s reasonable to ask whether CNN, TBS and USA lost 6 million subscribers due to trimmed down packages over that period.

Nobody is asking that question because besides the most-trimmed down “broadcast networks only” packages I’m not sure any MSO even offers a package without CNN.

Based on that, the reasonable conclusion is that ESPN lost nowhere near 10 million (or 8 million) subscribers in that period due to slimmer packages. It seems reasonable to speculate (but not state as fact) that ESPN might have lost around 2 million subscribers to packages without ESPN.

That’s not nothing, but it’s also not the primary driver of subscriber declines.

While it’s popular to speculate (and then state as fact) that the other 6 million is cord-cutting, my speculation is most of it isn’t, or at least not exactly. I speculate that the bulk is due to people dying off who aren’t replaced by new households with cable. But, just speculating.

Cord-cutting is a more populist and happier narrative.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Spin it how ever you want it but the days of people who don’t watch ESPN and are subsidizing it by the forced cable bundles with no ala carte is slowly coming to an end. People only have so much disposable income and a choice between cable and food on the table is an obvious choice.

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