Much has been said and written about ESPN’s struggles over the past few years. From cord cutting to layoffs to declining ratings and revenues, the media has portrayed ESPN like the Titanic right after it crashed into the iceberg.
But despite the negative headlines, the network has remained the dominant brand in sports media. From television to digital to radio, ESPN has continued to lead the charge, despite facing stiffer competition.
Some blame the network’s problems on steep increases in their rights deals with the leagues they feature play by play programming from. Others have called ESPN a prisoner of past successes. The remaining critics point to losing too many high profile personalities, a left leaning political agenda, and moving too slowly to modernize SportsCenter as viewers tastes begun to change.
When a sports media company is recognized as the elite of an industry for decades, it’s going to have a large bullseye on its back. Many prefer watching the underdog knock off the favorite instead of appreciating sheer excellence. And when it comes to sports media circles, there’s no denying ESPN has been the dominant global brand occupying space inside the mind of every sports fan.
But is that space in jeopardy of being compromised? And if so, why is that the case?
At a recent meeting with stockholders, Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors that the assertion that the company exhibits significant political bias in its programming is completely exaggerated. He also stated that if people watched the network’s programs they would not detect any political bias.
But that opinion isn’t shared by many in the sports media industry. It becomes even harder to subscribe to that belief after The Big Lead conducted a survey with 51 different media members and discovered that 49 of the 51 did not vote for Donald Trump. Although the survey did not specify which media outlets participated in the survey, you can bet some ESPN personalities participated.
Throughout the years ESPN has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the sports media landscape, treating competitors like an afterthought. The company has resisted issuing public narratives to defend their positions, and have been the prettiest girl at the Walt Disney Company’s annual dance. Industry professionals have viewed ESPN as the best in the business, and the place that everyone dreams of working for if they want to make a great living and have their life’s work mean something.
But with so much criticism and cynicism surrounding the company these days, it’s forced president John Skipper to go on the record to tout the company’s strengths and remind investors, advertisers and the public of the brand’s dominance. That’s a different approach than the one ESPN has been accustomed to following.
After the network reported sub-par fourth quarter earnings, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated wrote that the company would eliminate a number of on-air positions by June. That’s led to a lot of tension in Bristol, CT as employees contemplate what their futures might look like if ESPN calls their number.
It also hasn’t increased confidence among the public, investors or members of the advertising community who continue to wait for ESPN to right the ship and guide them back to prosperous times.
With so much happening to ESPN over the past few years, I wondered if the perception among sports fans was as grim as the media had been portraying it to be. To get a sense of where ESPN stood with its readers, viewers, and listeners, I conducted a short 10-question survey. The survey was conducted over the span of one week from March 7-14, and a total of 1,363 people contributed. Below are the results.
A combined 91% of participants say they consume ESPN’s content less or no longer enjoy it. Only 8.8% say their opinion of the company and its programming remains unchanged.
Despite Bob Iger’s claims that the network doesn’t exude any political bias, that opinion is not shared by those who participated in this study. 60% of survey members felt that the company has a left-leaning agenda. 39.2% say the political influence on the company’s airwaves is either neutral, undetected or right leaning.
The survey showed that 97.2% of sports fans feel less enthusiastic about ESPN’s programming. A total of 69.9% say they either no longer watch or only tune in occasionally. Slightly more than 30% say they love the programming and watch a decent amount of it.
The perception of ESPN’s Talent isn’t as strong as it once was. A combined 40.3% feel ESPN employs great talent despite losing some key people in recent years. The remaining 59.7% feel the network’s talent level is either underwhelming or not close to where it once was.
The change in presentation for SportsCenter appears to be too early to draw any concrete conclusions. 49.3% say it’s either not their style or they don’t like it, but most people initially reject change so this isn’t uncommon. 32.6% say they like it or are still getting used to it, and 18% didn’t notice.
Rather than boxing people in with this question by giving them a few choices to pick from, we wanted to get a sense of what studio programs drew the best recall. The three programs that received the most positive feedback were Pardon The Interruption, Baseball Tonight, and College GameDay.
Similar to question 6, we wanted to know which programs emotionally moved the audience most in a negative way. The two shows which earned the least favorable feedback were First Take (#1 by a wide margin) and SportsCenter (many felt the show has become background noise and lacks great content worth tuning in for).
ESPN has a number of different categories it specializes in as a sports media content company. The ones that carried the largest appeal to participants in this survey were Play by Play and Documentaries, with PXP earning 1 out of every 3 votes. The only other category in double digits was League Specific Shows.
In measuring the categories which offered the least amount of value to sports fans, the members of this survey concluded that the number one area of disdain for them were Debate Shows. The only other category to receive double digit negative feedback was SportsCenter.
The final question was created to find out why sports fans were spending more or less time with the network. Those who enjoy ESPN’s programming more said it was because they Still Love Watching Games, 30 For 30 Is Exceptional Programming, and the channel is Easy To Find on Their Television.
Survey members who say they’re investing less time in the network’s programming attribute it to a Decrease In Content Quality and Talent, Better Choices Available via TV-Digital-Social, and Too Much Focus on Hot Take Shows with a Left Leaning Agenda and Less on Making Sports Fun and Neutral. Deflategate was another specific subject which turned off many fans.
John Skipper To Speak At The 2022 BSM Summit
“In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured key talent to join the brand, and in April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.
Putting on a two-day industry conference comes with a fair share of challenges. Months are spent building sessions, selling sponsorships, and talking to so many people that by the time the event rolls around, all I can think about is reaching the finish line and avoiding major issues.
But then the event happens, and there are moments where I’m able to block out the noise for 30-40 minutes and just be present in conversation. It’s what I enjoy most. Being able to sit across from an industry leader who’s been successful in business, and pick their brain on the past, present and future of our industry is both personally and professionally fulfilling. Not only does it provide me with an education, but it helps everyone in attendance too. That’s my motivation for running this conference.
When we return to New York City on March 2-3, 2022, I’m thrilled to share that I’ll have a chance to do that once again with someone I’ve professionally respected and admired for a long time. It is an honor to announce that Meadowlark Media CEO John Skipper will join us for a special on stage conversation at the 2022 BSM Summit.
If you’ve worked in this industry or aspire to, then you’re likely aware of what John has accomplished. He’s seen the business from many different points of view and remains very much involved in helping shape its future. But before we discuss his present involvement, let’s revisit the past.
During his tenure with ESPN, John spent five years serving as company president where he secured a series of long-term, multiplatform agreements with key rightsholders such as the NBA, NFL, MLB, Major College Conferences, US Open Tennis, FIFA, the Masters Tournament and British Open, the College Football Playoff, and the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls. He also oversaw the evolution of several brands including The Undefeated, Grantland, five thirty eight, and espnW among others.
Prior to becoming company president, John held the position as EVP of Content, which he earned after helping create and introduce one of the most successful magazine launches of the 1990’s with ESPN The Magazine. His understanding and belief in digital helped ESPN move ESPN. com forward in 2000, adding a paid section, ESPN Insider, and delivering a revamped site approach to generate more advertising. His foresight also spurred the launch of ESPN3, a television network producing more than 4,000 live events on the web and through mobile devices. If that wasn’t enough, John also supported the creation of the Watch ESPN app, played a key role in elevating the careers of many of the industry’s top sports media stars today, and oversaw the growth of ESPN Films, ESPN Radio, and many of ESPN’s key television programs.
After exiting the worldwide leader, John signed on as the Executive Chairman of DAZN. In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured a number of key talent to become part of the brand, and established a strong presence in podcasting and on YouTube. In April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.
What I’ve appreciated about John is that he’s never been afraid to roll the dice and take risks. Some of his moves have worked out, others haven’t. The wins have been recognized across the industry, but so too have the losses. He’s had to lead a company thru high profile talent controversies, cord cutting challenges, understand the world of video, audio, print, digital, advertising, subscriptions, talent, and rights deals both domestic and internationally, all while keeping his finger on the pulse of the present state of the media business while turning an eye towards the future and knowing which areas the company should make significant investments in.
John has been thru all of it as a media executive, and he’s still doing it while building the Meadowlark brand. A recent story in Bloomberg captured some of his views on growing the Le Batard empire and navigating various parts of the industry. I highly recommend taking time to read it. You can do that by clicking here.
We have five and a half months until we’re inside the Anne Bernstein Theater in New York City, so who knows where the industry will shift during that time. One thing is for certain, John Skipper will be ready for whatever lands on his doorstep. I’m eager to spend time with him in New York treating industry professionals to his insights, opinions and leadership lessons. I’m confident those in attendance will gain value from hearing his perspectives on the industry.
I invite you to join us either in person or virtually for the 2022 BSM Summit. Tickets to the event can be purchased by clicking here. For information on sponsorship opportunities, email JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
2022 BSM Summit Adds Pablo Torre, Joe Fortenbaugh, Kazeem Famuyide & John Jastremski
“By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day Summit.”
The announcements continue for the 2022 BSM Summit. After recently sharing the news that former ESPN Radio executive Traug Keller would join us in the big apple to accept the Jeff Smulyan Award, and previously revealing the first fourteen participants scheduled to appear, it’s time to inform you of a few key talent who will participate in sessions at March’s show.
I’m thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Pablo Torre to the 2022 BSM Summit. Pablo’s been with the worldwide leader since 2012. During that time he’s served as a senior writer for ESPN.com, the host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and has appeared on shows such as Around The Horn, Highly Questionable, and The Dan Le Batard Show. He also previously co-hosted High Noon with Bomani Jones. Prior to joining ESPN he spent five years writing for Sports Illustrated. Having worked with a mixture of talent from various backgrounds, I’m looking forward to having him share his insight and opinions on the value of it at the show.
Pablo isn’t the only ESPN personality joining us in New York for the conference. I’m excited to welcome back a great friend and one of the smartest sports betting analysts on television, Joe Fortenbaugh. Joe is regularly featured on ESPN’s sports betting program Daily Wager. He also appears on other ESPN programs and segments on television, radio and digital platforms. Prior to joining the network he hosted 95.7 The Game’s morning show in San Francisco, and hosted “The Sharp 600″ sports betting podcast. He’ll moderate a conversation with sports betting executives at the show.
Given that this two-day sports media conference is taking place in the heart of New York City, it’d be silly to not include someone who’s passion, energy, sound, and content embody what New York is all about. The Ringer’s John Jastremski will make his BSM Summit debut in 2022. The ‘New York, New York’ host is known to many for his years of contributions on WFAN. It’ll be fun picking JJ’s brain on the differences between performing on a traditional platform and the digital stage.
Jastremski isn’t the only one with a connection to The Ringer who will participate at our 2022 event. My next guest is someone who I’ve followed on YouTube and Twitter for years, has infectious energy and likeability, and has taken his life experiences and sports passions and turned them into opportunities with MSG Network, SNY, The Ringer, Bleacher Report, WWE, The Source and various other outlets. Kazeem Famuyide will join us to shed light on his journey and offer his perspective on the value of traditional vs. non-traditional paths.
By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day event. I’ll be announcing the addition of a very special executive in mid-October, as well as a few high profile speakers and awards recipients in the weeks and months ahead. I’m appreciative of so many expressing interest in speaking at the conference, and as much as I’d like to include everyone on stage, I can’t. Keeping the Summit informative, fresh and focused on the right issues is important, and to do that, I’ve got to introduce different people, perspectives and subjects so our attendees gain value to further improve the industry.
A reminder, the 2022 BSM Summit is strictly for members of the sports media industry and college students aspiring to work in the business. It brings together people from more than thirty different media companies and focuses on issues of relevance and importance to media industry professionals. The show takes place March 2-3, 2022 in New York at the Anne Bernstein Theater on West 50th Street. Tickets and hotel rooms can be secured by visiting BSMSummit.com. For those unable to attend in person, the Summit will also be available to view online. Virtual tickets can be purchased by clicking here. Hope you’ll join us!
Traug Keller Named 2022 Recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award
“Former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award.”
Sometimes decisions are difficult. Other times they’re not. This was one of the easiest ones I’ve made since launching the BSM Summit in 2018.
If you haven’t attended the Summit before, one of the cool parts of the conference each year is that we take time to honor people who have left a permanent mark on the industry we love. Awards ceremonies are held both days to recognize difference makers who have made positive contributions to the sports radio business. At our 2022 BSM Summit, I am pleased to share that a great man will be celebrated for his life’s work.
It is my honor to announce that former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award. Keller becomes the third industry executive to earn the honor. Kraig Kitchin and Dan Mason were the first two to be recognized at the 2019 and 2020 BSM Summit’s.
Upon learning that Traug had been selected as the next Jeff Smulyan Award winner, Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan said, “Traug Keller has left an indelible imprint on not only sports radio, but on all of broadcasting through his remarkable career. I’m proud to call him my friend, but I’m just one of the legions of people who have loved every minute of their time with him. He’s a broadcaster’s broadcaster, but more than that he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
“I am humbled for sure but thrilled to be receiving an award with the name of my good friend on it, Jeff Smulyan,” added Traug Keller, now the EVP and COO of American Media. “Jeff did what all too few leaders in business do, he took risk and action against all kinds of headwinds and the rest of us in the great business of Sports Audio were the beneficiaries of it. Thanks to BSM for this great honor and I look forward to seeing a bunch of old friends in March!”
Anyone who has crossed paths with Traug over the past three decades knows how important he was to the success of ESPN Radio. He’s been a friend to many, a great partner to hundreds of radio affiliates, and a champion for talent. His support for BSM has also meant a lot.
Perhaps even more impressive was Traug’s ability to connect with his affiliates, clients and colleagues, offering steady leadership and on-air stability for ESPN Radio. No executive leaves with a perfect record, but Keller had a knack for landing on the right side of many decisions. None as impressive though as retiring from sports radio in February 2020, one month before the sports world came to a screeching halt and a global pandemic rocked the entire advertising industry. Talk about timing Traug, haha.
In all seriousness, having Traug and Jeff together on the same stage in front of the industry to give folks an opportunity to show their appreciation for their accomplishments is a real treat. So many enjoy professional success today due to bold and smart decisions made by each of these men, and I couldn’t be happier to spend time with both in New York City this March.
For tickets, hotel and additional details regarding the 2022 BSM Summit visit BSMSummit.com.
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