The dominant media narrative in recent months around ESPN has been this: ESPN is losing cable subscribers, slowly but surely.
There has been a variety of theories as to why, posited by industry insiders and analysts. Business Insider recently spoke to Bleacher Report CEO
Dave Finocchio, who said he thought ESPN had been hurt by the rise of digital media and shifting expectations of younger audiences.
To say that ESPN disagreed with Finocchio’s assessment is an understatement.
“The one thing Dave was right about was that [Bleacher Report] started from a smaller base [than ESPN],” ESPN’s digital boss, John Kosner, told Business Insider during an interview about ESPN’s digital ambitions.
Kosner said ESPN’s decline in cable subscribers has to do with the evolution of pay TV as a whole, not with ESPN losing the love of millennials. On the digital side in particular, ESPN’s brand is stronger than ever, particularly among younger viewers, Kosner said.
One indicator: Snapchat.
Kosner pointed to ESPN’s booming Snapchat Discover channel as evidence of its continued relevance to younger viewers. ESPN’s Snapchat Discover channel gets a whopping 18 million unique viewers per month, and 2.3 million per day, Kosner said. That makes it the third most-watched channel on Snapchat Discover, according to Kosner.
More broadly, ESPN reached 30.6 million US adults aged 18-34 across its digital platforms in July, according to comScore. That blows its sports rivals away. ESPN’s next closest competitor, Yahoo Sports-NBC, snagged 17.1 million.
The digital audience
Kosner doesn’t think ESPN’s digital operation serves a fundamentally different type of consumer than its cable channels, but he does think there’s a different sports sensibility in younger generations.
“Sports fans’ tastes are changing,” he said.
Primarily, he said that millennials are interested in a wider variety of sports, particularly those with an international focus. He pointed to spiking interest in the Premier League soccer as an example, but also to eSports, where ESPN is a leader in coverage.
On the whole, ESPN streams more than 19,000 sports events annually, according to the company.
One new product that will try to tap into those broad tastes is an upcoming upcoming “a la carte” ESPN streaming service, which doesn’t require a cable subscription. It will include games and related content from the MLB, NHL, college football and basketball, tennis, rugby, cricket, and so on — but nothing that is playing on ESPN when you flip on cable, according to parent company Disney’s CEO Bob Iger.
With new avenues for young people to consume ESPN, like Snapchat, one worry is that they won’t need to tune into ESPN staples like SportsCenter — or even have a cable subscription.
“I do not believe in cannibalization,” Kosner said, even of younger audiences. He also pointed out that SportsCenter has the youngest audience composition on late night TV, younger than Fallon, Kimmel, and so on. But even though Kosner doesn’t believe in cannibalization, that doesn’t mean ESPN’s digital parts exist simply to serve its cable juggernaut. “Every initiative should be driving value,” Kosner said.
Ultimately, Kosner says ESPN’s massive success is sometimes taken for granted, that those expectations are baked into everything ESPN does.
But it’s like being on the 1927 Yankees, Kosner said. “It’s a good problem to have.”