Mailbag: Stick with The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis! (ESPN & Politics)


No actual particular e-mail here. If only one person had reached out to me I’d ignore it. But while I’ve done a few things I expected (and received) blowback over, praising Shalini Ramachandran’s story in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday about ESPN wasn’t one of them.

I tend to overthink things that don’t meet my expectations so I’ve been chewing on this.

First hypothesis: I’m wrong

I reread the story several times. I like the story. I get that people have a tendency to have strong reactions to headlines. I’ve tried to train my brain not to do that as a practical matter. If I use the Internet as much as I do and don’t guard against that kind of thing, it’ll eat me up. I don’t want to be eaten up like that.

But there’s also this: I didn’t think the headline “How a Weakened ESPN was Consumed by Politics” was wrong. Catnip? For sure! Irritating? Clearly to plenty! But wrong?

I’d have preferred “ESPN had 99 problems and politics was 99th, but they got consumed by it anyway.” But that’s a nit, and I did very much read the actual story as politics definitely wasn’t in the top few things ESPN needed to be consumed by and yet…they got consumed by it anyway.

I got some “ESPN executives weren’t consumed by it, DISNEY executives were!” feedback. I buy “Burbank started this, not Bristol” and that’s certainly a very interesting and important dynamic, but in terms of how I received Shalini’s article that’s a toe-may-toe/tah-mah-toe thing for me.

I liked the packaging and I liked the charts and the bit about how in negotiating higher affiliate carriage fees ESPN had given up some of its base subscriber guarantee protections. That was a surprise. I apologize for missing this news FOR YEARS. But it was pretty big news to me. Clarification: nobody will probably see this clarification but the way I wrote this originally (and even the edit I’m leaving) conflates Shalini breaking news that was actually John Ourand’s! From 2.5 years ago! But I credit Shalini’s story for rankling people to the point where that info surfaced for me.

With affiliate carriage fees representing 70% (or more) of ESPN’s revenue stream…if you like number crunching, trading higher rates for a smaller percentage of guaranteed subscribers is very crunchy.

Second hypothesis: I’m not wrong, but….

There are advantages and disadvantages of not being a journalist.

One big disadvantage is that in not working the network for scoops and there is always stuff going in the “right now” that I’m not aware of. I can imagine things where if I knew them it might make me look at Shalini’s story in a different light. The flip side is having that info might often make me look at the story differently when it shouldn’t.

But still, I can imagine things going on RIGHT NOW that I don’t know about that are very reasonably affecting how people who do know those things read Shalini’s story.

I sometimes forget how competitive journos are. I forget because I’m not competing with them. In this game I’m not even on the bench. I’m in the stands with no rooting interest whatsoever. This is definitely a big disadvantage when it comes to being first to get info. Usually I still think that’s to my advantage, but usually is not always.

Third hypothesis: I’m not wrong

See first hypothesis.

I’m sure there are other hypotheses buy my sense is I’m definitely missing some of the “right now” aspects so for now I’m going to go with the “I’m not wrong, but…” version.

Missing Info

Some more excellent charts from the great Timothy Burke (who runs the very entertaining @bubbaprog Twitter account) in his There is No Evidence Whatsoever That ESPN Is Losing Subscribers Because of Its “Politics”

The charts on % of subscriber declines vs 2011 & 2015 are interesting. But although my name is no longer attached, since I’m probably the one responsible for the 2011 data Timothy used via this post, I am much more familiar with these numbers than your run-of-the-mill Twitter dude.

Timothy notes that other networks have fared worse than ESPN and on a percentage basis, that is certainly true. But NFL Network, NBCSN and NBATV never scaled the heights of being nearly fully distributed. NBA TV had 55+ million households in July 2011 and ~46 million households in May 2018. They’ve lost fewer subscribers than ESPN but lost a bigger percentage and without that context Timothy’s charts don’t tell the full story.

But I already had the context so I kind of loved the charts anyway. With that context I know that ESPN is down 14% since July 2011 when it had around 100 million households. But CNN (which I think is a much better comp in terms of scaling the heights of being nearly fully distributed) is only down 9% and it had a million more households (101+ million) than ESPN in July 2011.

Why is ESPN so much more adversely impacted than CNN? Whatever your politics *this* is very interesting to me.

In the past, in the absence of any real data I chalked ESPN’s declines relative to CNN up to the litany of mom & pop cable providers who completely bailed on ESPN over pricing.  They’re tiny individually but in the aggregate I wondered if they added up to giving ESPN the finger on about 3 million households or so. I figured that mostly accounted for the difference between ESPN and CNN. I can’t say I ever got that verified in a way that makes me think “I believe I had that!” but nobody has ever told me it was way off base either.

Now, I also have to consider how trading off base guarantees for price hikes plays in.

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