Sports are as much about fandom and conversation as they are about watching games, and for a long time ESPN’s hit show “SportsCenter” owned that conversation.
- ESPN has dominated sports on TV for decades, but the same can't be said for sports on social media.
- Data shows that rivals Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports have done a better job of engaging social audiences, and gained an increasing share of ad dollars.
- The comparisons raise thorny questions for the Disney-owned sports-media giant — namely, does it even care if it's not good at social media?
- While there's still plenty of money to be had from TV ads, the long-term risk is that it'll lose its position with young audiences.
Sports are as much about fandom and conversation as they are about watching games, and for a long time ESPN's hit show “SportsCenter” owned that conversation.
Not only did it have a lockdown on all the key highlights on a given day, but it had hipster anchors like Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Stuart Scott tossing off catchphrases and building devoted followings of their own.
Now, for many young fans, the trash talk and highlight reels are found on social media, in shareable digital videos on Facebook and through witty posts on Instagram or Twitter. And instead of coming from ESPN, they're coming from newer rivals like Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports. This is especially true in the exploding world of social video.
ESPN says it has different objectives than the startups when it comes to social media. Critics say this shows that the Disney-owned network doesn't seem to understand the challenges heading its way as viewer behavior changes.
“How people are consuming sports content is changing in a lot of ways,” said Adam Mendelsohn, media and communications adviser to NBA star LeBron James. “You have new platforms delivering sports-specific content to fans.”
Though it's still profitable, and generating billions in revenue thanks to exclusive deals with major sports leagues for live games, the once invincible business model has been autopsied incessantly as profits have fallen and layoffs followed. The 11 p.m. broadcast of SportsCenter in saw its audience of 18- to 49-year-olds fall 18% in August, compared with last year, Nielsen data show.
Some culprits ESPN can't really control — like cord-cutting by viewers tired of paying high cable bills, or a drop in NFL ratings. Also, it has found itself caught up in the political conversation as it faces accusations — including from President Donald Trump — of a hidden liberal bias.
But ESPN does have control over how it engages sports fans online. There's no reason to expect the erosion of cable-sports subscriptions and viewership to end. And while the rights to broadcast a live game are safe, for now, the network's soft underbelly is all the programming that isn't a live game.
“The live game is still the premiere product and still has high demand for advertisers,” Mendelsohn said. “What is created around that is what is changing rapidly. Those advertising dollars that go to 'SportsCenter' and afternoon talk shows are in question.”
'Just talk to a 24-year-old'
ESPN's fast-growing digital rivals say the network's focus on broadcast means it has missed a chance to keep its brand relevant, and they see an opportunity to gloat about it.
“Just talk to a 24-year-old,” says David Finocchio, co-founder, and co-CEO of Bleacher Report, the 10-year-old digital-media brand acquired by Time Warner for $170 million that has fast grown to 45 million unique visitors in the US, according to comScore. Bleacher says it reaches 250 million people each month overall thanks to its social footprint.“Our social content is better because we have a more peer-to-peer voice,” he said. “We connect with younger people like they're texting their friends, not like a classic media company shouting out.
“If a traditional media company uses terms like 'dope' or 'lit,' it comes across as condescending,” he said. “They can't get away with it.”
On the surface, ESPN's social-media presence does appear fairly lit. It has 33.5 million Twitter followers whereas Bleacher Report has 5 million and edgy upstart Barstool Sports has 900,000. ESPN's has 18.3 million Facebook followers, compared to 7.4 million for Bleacher and 1.3 million for Barstool. It's similar on Instagram, where ESPN has 8.6 million followers versus 5.2 million for Bleacher and 2.7 million for Barstool.
But a look at data from the Facebook-owned analytics company CrowdTangle shows that companies such as Bleacher, Barstool, and the YouTube sports network Whistle Sports consistently get more people to interact with their social-media content — shares, likes, views, comments — at much higher rates than ESPN.
Below the surface
As a result, far more people can end up seeing content from ESPN's rivals. On Facebook, from June 1 to September 1, Bleacher generated 442 million video views and Barstool generated 312 million, according to CrowdTangle. ESPN, despite having the rights to every major sports league and decades worth of experience producing “SportsCenter,” generated fewer than 100 million.
Why? Is ESPN just not good at social media? Is it just not a priority? Does the company have different goals?
Well, here's a recent ESPN post:
The tone is slightly different at Bleacher.
And then there's Barstool which is often not safe for work.
Is TV king?
Finocchio thinks it comes down to a focus on TV programming over all other means of distribution.
“On the ground there's a different reality. Mobile and social have fundamentally disrupted how people get sports news and sports culture. And the reasons you tune into shoulder programming in the 1990s don't exist.”
By “shoulder programming” Finocchio refers to content around and about the games, from highlight shows like “SportsCenter” to debate series such as “First Take.” That sort of content is seen by some as harder for ESPN to dominate when everyone can get instant scores and highlights on their phones.
The case for ESPN
“There are a lot of answers and a lot of different strategies when it comes to social media,” said Ryan Spoon, ESPN's senior vice president of digital product, design, and audience development, in an interview with Business Insider.
As Spoon said, ESPN has a massive website and mobile-app audience, and it makes money on both properties by selling lots of ads. ESPN.com averaged about 84 million monthly visitors in the US over the past year. The company's digital properties log over a half a billion video starts a month. ESPN also has the biggest sports app in the US, and sometimes its fantasy app is No. 2 in the App Store.
So while some digital publishers use content distributed through social media as the primary venue to engage fans, ESPN has to balance that goal with a need to drive social media fans to its sites and apps.
“We have a very large digital property,” he said. “We find ways to have the two sides engage each other.”
Plus, ESPN could argue that CrowdTangle data doesn't tell the whole story. For example, July data from the analytics firm Shareable showed that ESPN had 169.8 million total actions in social media (likes, shares) versus 163.7 million for Bleacher Report.
Regardless, just driving social engagement or views off ESPN properties is “not necessarily the primary goal,” Spoon said. And the network is planning a direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2018.
“If [racking up social views or likes] is your core, it will drive your strategy,” Spoon said. “There will be lots of fan chatter on social platforms, and we want to be a part of that. But we also hope to drive substantial streaming [on ESPN properties]. I don’t wake up any morning looking at just one metric.”
The reality of media buying
Beyond social metrics, of course, there's ESPN's still very enviable TV business.
Kagan, a media-research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, last year estimated that ESPN hauled in $2.1 billion in advertising and $7.6 billion in affiliate fees. You can see why ESPN might not sweat a handful of seven-figure social-media sponsorships.
Talk to a traditional TV ad buyer, and they'll say they're still concerned with how many ratings points are available on “Monday Night Football.” ESPN averaged 11.4 million viewers for its MNF games last year, reported Reuters.
Realistically, a brand like Procter & Gamble couldn't take a few hundred million dollars off ESPN and put it into Bleacher Report videos if it wanted to. There simply isn't enough inventory or a big enough audience — yet.
It's easy to see, then, why ESPN might not see a need to worry about scooping up every custom web-video ad deal and is focused on getting the Budweisers of the world to renew their lucrative college-football sponsorships instead.
But there are plenty of examples of seemingly invulnerable media companies ignoring smaller audience and revenue areas and suddenly finding themselves behind. Some move quickly to correct course, like when Facebook dove headfirst into mobile; others struggle. Think of the once vital newsmagazines Time and Newsweek. Or MTV sleeping on the growth of youth-culture juggernauts Spotify and Snapchat.
“We talk about this all the time,” said Dan Donnelly, executive vice president and managing director at Publicis Media Sports, referring to whether social-media sports consumption is a vulnerability for ESPN.
“We try and take a step back and say, 'What are we trying to accomplish here?' Are we trying to expand beyond a partnership with a league or fan? Or are you just looking to connect with this audience?”
ESPN still delivers massive events, and that's “awesome,” Donnelly said, but “that's going to continue to erode a bit.”
If marketers want to do something more custom and creative, often they turn to Bleacher Report and sites like it, said Donnelly.
“It's more strategic,” he said. “You can really try to embed yourself in content that’s relevant. As a media buyer, you are still looking for the most scaled opportunity, but more and more you are looking to complement the scale with relevance and authenticity.”
House of Highlights
The Instagram account House of Highlights is seemingly swimming in the kind authenticity ESPN wants to hold on to. The Bleacher-owned property is literally the product of one young superfan, 23-year-old Omar Raja.
Raja started House of Highlights three years ago as a place to share fun sports highlights, from amazing plays to strange amateur clips to perfectly capture facial expressions from big names like Carmelo Anthony that become instant memes.
House of Highlights gets 400 million views a month on Instagram, reported Digiday. It has nearly 7 million followers, including big athletes. “Three years later you have LeBron reposting me,” Raja said.
Raja said he posts four or five clips a day, after sifting through 400 to 500 submissions, including some from pro athletes. Why has this worked? And why aren't these fans just going to their ESPN app for this stuff?
“It speaks from an actual person's voice,” Raja said. “Like when you and you are boys are talking. If 'SportsCenter' posted something like that, it would come off as so weird and strange.”
House of Highlights doesn't yet make money, which might explain why a company like ESPN isn't looking to emulate it just yet. But the plan is for Bleacher to start selling ads and exploring e-commerce next year.
Watch out for Barstool…and Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Facebook
Earlier this year, the Barstool Sports posted a story and series of videos chronicling how long an intern at the company could resist masturbation. It's certainly hard to imagine that on ESPN. And that's the kind of content that some advertisers would not want to go near.
But fans of Barstool eat it up.
Ian Schafer, founder of Deep Focus, remembers a time when “SportsCenter” had a cultural resonance and edge that defined the brand. Now he sees up-and-comers like Barstool stealing that mantle with a fan dynamic he likens to that of Howard Stern.
To date, Barstool has only a few million monthly visitors, but “the engagement is huge,” said Schafer. “And right now, they may be better at talent development than ESPN. That's a giant red flag for them. ESPN is still living on its live-streaming rights.”
Schafer worries whether ESPN's lack of social-media and digital-culture focus will cost it over time with young fans. Witness the firestorm over “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill speaking out about Trump.
“They are not very relevant culturally,” he said. “Your personality can never be bigger than the network.”
But still, ESPN has all the big games and that's not changing until several US sports deals expire in the 2020s.
The threat for ESPN, Schafer says, is what happens when another media entity snatches some of the rights up.
“ESPN's biggest threat is the cash situation of Netflix, Amazon, et cetera,” he said. “Without their league deals, what would they be?”