The biggest debate in sports media right now is this: Is ESPN in trouble or not?
The network has sparred with ratings company Nielsen over how many subscribers it’s losing (Nielsen says more than a million in the last two months). In an interview in September, ESPN digital boss John Kosner responded to critics by asserting that ESPN’s brand was stronger than ever.
At Business Insider’s Ignition conference on Wednesday, LeBron James’ business guru, Maverick Carter, suggested that both ESPN and its detractors could be right.
“I love ESPN, I don’t think they’re screwed … They’re rethinking their model,” Carter said. “They had a model built on a lot of fluff, a lot of subscribers who were changing and moving and going other places, but I think ESPN as a brand, and what it means to sports, is still very important, and is a long way from being screwed. They just need to figure out what’s the new model going forward … They own a lot of opportunities [with the rights they already have] to go out and create new things that don’t even exist … I think they have a brand that matters so much in sports, when you talk about sports brands there are three or four, like NFL, NBA, Nike, and them [ESPN], that are the most important in sports.”
“I don’t think they’re screwed at all,” Turner Broadcasting president David Levy added. “They have to change the model.”
The takeaway: ESPN’s brand is one of the best in the business, they just have to continue to make new products that will capitalise on it. They can’t tread water.
Here’s one way that ESPN is already doing that: Snapchat.
In September, Kosner pointed to ESPN’s booming Snapchat Discover channel as evidence of its continued relevance to younger viewers. At that time, ESPN’s Snapchat Discover channel got a whopping 18 million unique viewers per month, and 2.3 million per day, Kosner said. That made it the third most-watched channel on Snapchat Discover.
But the question will be whether the new products ESPN is rolling out for our increasingly mobile world will be able to sustain the type of insane revenue the company is used to from linear TV.
And that’s not a question just facing ESPN, but also every media company trying to wring money from mobile video. Where is the big money going to come from?