Taking on the oh-so-simple subject of ESPN's future

Well, it’s time. After two years and a few thousand hours consuming ESPN content via all sorts of platforms and devices, my term as public editor comes to an end with this column. And, to close out, I’m taking on the oh-so-simple subject of ESPN’s future, something only a few million people have weighed in on over the past few years.

There’s a reason for that, of course. ESPN’s future hasn’t been this uncertain since it emerged from its humble beginnings to become one of the dominant media properties of its generation. Changing business models, shifting media distribution patterns and a plethora of new competitors have weakened a base that once seemed unassailable.

For perspective, the key word, of course, is “weakened.” Because there are only a handful of companies on earth that wouldn’t accept the “weakened” state of ESPN. It is still the primary owner of the shared live sports experience, maintains massive audiences on air and online, and still brings home annual profits that would make shareholders giddy if they hadn’t been used to larger profits before. So, while ESPN performs the necessary work of evaluating and adjusting its business model, it does so with real assets in hand.

I should note that I’ve tried to write this column four times. My first attempt was delayed in November by ESPN’s announcement that it would be laying off 150 employees. Before writing, I felt it was important to see what departments would be affected since, as I’ve written before, layoffs speak to a company’s true priorities in a way no public statement or sound bite can.

After the layoffs were announced, I began writing again. Soon after -- for a brief period -- ESPN was pulled into the #MeToo movement when sexual harassment allegations were made against a few ESPN employees. I decided to tap the brakes again to see whether there would be additional allegations that would need to be addressed in this final piece.

When no further allegations surfaced -- at least publicly -- I turned back to the column for the third time. In an hourlong interview for this piece, then-company president John Skipper was extremely bullish about the future of ESPN and covered more ground and spoke with more passion than in any other interview I’d had with him. In that discussion, I asked him whether this had been the toughest time he’d been through in his role. “Yes, this has been the most challenging stretch,” he said.

Four days later, on Dec. 18, things got even more challenging, when Skipper stunned the media world -- not to mention his ESPN colleagues -- by resigning so he could address a substance abuse problem. The move came just one month after Skipper had reportedly signed a contract extension through 2021.

If the first two column delays were more cautionary, the third was seismic. Suddenly, ESPN was without the man who had been president since 2012, and someone many credit with turning it into a strong journalistic entity.

Eventually, I came to the realization that this might well be an indicator of what ESPN’s future looks like: increasingly frequent seismic changes that lead to a more-frequent need to adapt. After decades of steady but strong growth -- in influence, revenue and staffing -- ESPN’s future is now looking like one that will be as much a cultural challenge as an economic one. As technology continues its peripatetic march forward, the need to quickly adjust to new tools, distribution patterns and competitors will surely increase. To me, the issue really isn’t whether ESPN will figure out how to continually make money -- I strongly suspect it will, though at what level remains to be seen -- but whether its culture can adapt quickly enough to keep up.

The good news for ESPN, though, is that it became the powerful company it is today by brilliantly navigating a new platform almost 40 years ago: cable television. “No matter what you think of perception of our size, the company represents people who started in trailer trucks,” said Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of original content, newsgathering and digital media. “The one word you could never accurately use about this place is ‘complacent.’”

Complacency is certainly not a risk right now, as ESPN employees -- and those who cover the network -- are eagerly awaiting the first moves of James Pitaro, named ESPN’s new president on March 5. The timing of Pitaro’s appointment makes writing this column more complicated, especially when it comes to assessing the future of journalism inside ESPN.

Skipper was a driving force behind ESPN’s emphasis on producing more high-quality journalism. He oversaw a significant expansion of ESPN’s investigative and enterprise units, was behind the network’s acquisition of FiveThirtyEight, launched The Undefeated and drove the development of ESPN The Magazine. That’s not to say there weren’t journalistic slip-ups during his time: The Undefeated didn’t launch for years after the announcement of its formation; the network’s withdrawal from a "Frontline" partnership around an NFL concussions documentary remains a black mark; and some of its Deflategate coverage has driven what appears to be a permanent wedge between ESPN and a large portion of New England sports fans. And although Skipper launched the beloved Grantland site, he also later shuttered it.

Because of his fingerprints on Grantland and The Undefeated, Skipper also amplified more cultural coverage, a path that helped open the door to more discussion of politics on ESPN properties -- which in turn created internal and external problems for the network, as I previously wrote.

Speaking of politics: Since my role here is to address editorial coverage and editorial products, I’m not going to spend much time doing a deep dive on ESPN’s business prospects. But I want to restate something that has been frequently misconstrued -- intentionally, I think, in many cases. Yes, ESPN has struggled with the increasing collision of sports and politics. But some have taken my columns on this topic as proof that the politics of ESPN have had a significant impact on its business. That is something I never said and do not believe to be true. Yes, there are surely people who have canceled ESPN because they think it has chosen a political side. But it’s clear that ESPN’s core business concern is -- and will continue to be -- the unbundling of its cable television consumers. The network’s cable subscriber number has dropped from its peak of just over 100 million in 2011 down to fewer than 87 million as of last May, according to Nielsen.

That doesn’t mean ESPN shouldn’t take seriously the thoughtful criticism of its perceived political move leftward. As I’ve written in previous columns, sports, culture and politics have always overlapped, so screaming that ESPN should “stick to sports” might feel good, but it’s not based in reality. That said, in these troubled political times, I suspect consumers are looking to sports for escapism more than ever. So, while ESPN will, and should, cover the overlap of sports and politics, I see no need for it to force its way into politics when the connection is not direct. Additionally, ESPN needs to do better at reflecting points of view from across the political spectrum.

Pitaro held his initial company-wide meeting in Bristol Wednesday, and responded to a question about the perception of liberal bias at ESPN.

“I do not believe that we are a political organization,” he said. “I know that a lot of conversation has happened within this company in the past year and I believe that we netted out in the right place, which is we are a sports media company. Of course, there is going to continue to be an intersection of between sports and politics and we’re going to continue to cover that. We’re going to cover it fairly and honestly. But we are focused on serving the sports fan.”

Let’s pull back to the state of ESPN’s journalism. At the moment, the lineup ESPN can journalistically bring to bear on any story remains impressive. I wrote in August that the network was consistently breaking big stories, launching impressive investigative efforts and publishing beautifully written features. Despite the November layoffs, that remains largely true. But, in talking to journalists inside ESPN, it’s clear Skipper’s departure left many of them more than a tad nervous. ESPN’s operations have been scaled back by two major rounds of layoffs in the past 11 months.

Will Pitaro have the same appetite for the kind of journalism -- and the headaches it can cause the network’s business partners -- that Skipper did?

Pitaro’s vision for the company will certainly unfold in coming weeks and months. When asked about his commitment to journalism at the ESPN employee meeting, Pitaro noted his role in helping build Yahoo Sports and praised ESPN’s creativity and approach to news coverage, adding, “One of the core business drivers going forward has got to be quality storytelling and programming.”

There’s little doubt the challenges of the moment are different from those of the past. In an interview before Skipper’s departure, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling said: “I think [our history] has been a constant disruption, but before this, they’ve been more ancillary developments fueled by technology rather than a direct disruption to the core.”

Magnus also was one of a handful of employees who pointed to a less obvious factor that has affected ESPN: “The biggest difference has been the external coverage of the company,” he said. “We’re not used to being under the microscope on a daily basis. It’s a lot more interesting to read about subscriber loss than different packaging of products. We’ve become the proxy for a disrupted industry. That’s a very different aspect than I’ve seen at any other time at ESPN… I’m not suggesting it’s undue; it’s fine, and part of the mantle we wear.”

Related to that issue is the seeming glee some are taking in ESPN’s struggles, an issue well laid out by The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis this past May. The level of animus many have toward the network is something I’ve been surprised by during my tenure as public editor, and I can safely say the level of that anger seems to have increased during that time.

This means ESPN needs to be increasingly careful about how it communicates with its audience, and that hasn’t been a strength of the network. ESPN serves its fans in the sense that it delivers to them more content across multiple platforms than they could ever consume on a daily basis, but that’s a one-to-many relationship. It’s the one-to-one relationship that ESPN needs to get better at, in my opinion. In my experience talking to many consumers of ESPN content, they tend to know a lot about the network yet don’t feel connected to it. This is an area where competitors such as Bleacher Report, Barstool Sports and Deadspin consistently have done better.

But there’s one crucial thing ESPN has in far greater amounts than any of its competitors: consumers.

On digital platforms, according to Nielsen, ESPN reached 84.9 million U.S. consumers via digital platforms in January, almost 20 percent more than second-ranked CBSSports.com. In December, ESPN reached 93.1 million U.S. consumers. If you expand that to worldwide users, the network says that it reached an average of 119 million per month in 2017 -- spiking at 149.9 million in one month -- and that the last four months of the year were its best ever.

Although the core of the business -- television -- isn’t what it used to be in terms of ratings or revenue, ESPN is still one of cable television’s main draws: In January, ESPN -- powered by the college football national championship game -- was the most-watched cable channel in the United States, averaging 2.9 million viewers a day. ESPN still routinely draws almost 2 million viewers per day, and, according to ESPN’s communications team, the network was responsible for the 10 highest-rated cable broadcasts of 2017 (and 16 of the top 20).

That leads me to the issue of sports rights: Call me old-school, but I still believe spending money on rights is smart business, provided the price isn’t crippling. In a world where appointment viewing is dying a painful death, one of the few great shared experiences remains live sports. “The communal aspect of it is there,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president of event and studio production. “Live sports is one of the few communal viewing things left.”

Now, the good news -- or bad news if you think the network’s rights deals are an albatross -- is that ESPN doesn’t need to negotiate new contracts for its three major professional league deals for a bit. NFL and MLB rights are not up until 2021, the NBA not until after the 2024-25 season. Additionally, Wimbledon rights don’t expire until 2023, and the US Open and the college football playoff rights don’t come up again until 2025.

The planned acquisition of Fox’s regional sports outlets -- still awaiting regulatory approval -- would seem to show a doubling-down of ESPN’s commitments to rights, as Fox’s 22 regional sports channels carry 44 professional teams’ games. In addition to providing more scale for advertisers, this acquisition will also limit the competition when national sports rights deals come up for renewal, in the same way newspapers buying up more newspapers has both expanded scale and reduced competition for subsequent purchases. Disney’s proposed purchase of Fox would also strengthen ESPN’s rights and content portfolio around the world.

If you believe live sports will continue to resist the media trends that have compromised so many other types of events, then ESPN’s belief in rights makes sense. What will happen to the price of those rights remains the largest open question. Although ESPN would surely prefer to pay less when its rights deals come up for renewal, I’m equally sure that the leagues and organizations they’re negotiating with will push for more. Even with the constant disaggregation of media during the past seven years, the total price of sports rights deals reportedly has climbed from $11 billion to $19 billion.

The other closely watched upcoming company effort is the planned launch of ESPN Plus, the network’s direct-to-consumer streaming service, which is expected to debut in the coming months. In August 2016, Disney, ESPN’s parent company, spent $1 billion to buy a 33 percent share of MLBAM Tech, Major League Baseball’s video streaming service, and it then bought another 42 percent this past August to become majority owner.

BAM Tech -- which partners with HBO, the NHL, the PGA and Sony, among others, and already provides the technology for the digital distribution of ESPN’s linear channels -- will provide the back end for Plus, a $4.99-per-month service that’ll broadcast live events, live programming and other ESPN content, such as 30 for 30.

Because of rights issues, ESPN Plus will provide additive content and won’t stream live events that currently appear on the network’s broadcast channels, which -- at least for a while -- will limit its appeal. But the network says Plus will broadcast approximately 10,000 live regional, national and international games and events per year, and will include Major League Baseball, the NHL, Major League Soccer, Grand Slam tennis, boxing and college sports. So, although its full potential might take some time to suss out, Plus will at least give ESPN an alternative for fans who don’t want -- or can’t afford -- a full cable package but still want their fill of sports.

These experiments are important, and although they might seem like no-brainers based on changing media patterns, many legacy news organizations have utterly failed on the experimentation front. To ESPN’s credit, I have always found the company to be willing to experiment, even if the moves fail to pan out. Innovation when you’re bringing in billions -- yes, billions -- in profits is a cultural challenge, and whether it’s launching its own branded phone, rolling out city sites, expanding its global digital footprint, launching SportsCenter on Snapchat or other experiments, ESPN has been willing to take calculated gambles.

And it needs to be more experimental now than ever. This is no time to be conservative. The question for ESPN now isn’t whether it will have challenges to deal with but what they'll be and how frequently they’ll come. For some, like Magnus, that’s just fine.

“That’s actually the fun part,” he said. “Think about when online emerged. We were literally a TV network. Then there was the advent of mobile, and HD vs. SD. When these changes have occurred, it’s always been invigorating. I think people feel the same way now.”

As for the journalism ESPN produces, its lineup has been weakened by two rounds of layoffs. But, all things considered, it still has more journalistic firepower now than at almost any time in its history. Beyond the obvious question of whether that commitment will be maintained under Pitaro’s leadership, there’s still a lot ESPN can do to improve its journalism and its products. Here are a few suggestions:

Engage better with consumers: It’s complicated for a company the size of ESPN to maintain close ties to its millions of consumers. But I also don’t sense that ESPN has truly tried to provide engagement opportunities for its consumers. As with many legacy media brands, ESPN's engagement with its community feels more tangential than essential. This opening has been expertly exploited by sites such as Deadspin, Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports, where engagement and connection sit front and center, not as afterthoughts. Research shows that younger consumers are more likely to do business with companies they have some emotional connection to, which makes ESPN’s arm's-length relationship with its consumers not just a cultural challenge but potentially a financial one.

David Finocchio, CEO of Bleacher Report, put it well in a Business Insider piece this past fall:

“Just talk to a 24-year-old. Our social content is better because we have a more peer-to-peer voice. We connect with younger people like they're texting their friends, not like a classic media company shouting out.”

Back in November I asked Skipper about whether a deeper connection to fans was something he thought was important. “In the position I’m in, I would never trade success at the level we’ve had for a little more community and fun,” he said.

Although I understand the desire not to put the ESPN franchise at risk in exchange for more engagement, I don’t think this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Why couldn’t ESPN create a sub-brand that tries to lift from the successes of some of its cheekier competitors? Yes, Disney’s ownership might limit how far ESPN can stray, but I believe the lack of meaningful engagement opportunities for fans remains a risk for the network. ESPN has always made it focus serving sports fans, but I think much of its future lies in its ability to turn sports fans into ESPN fans.

No more LaVar Ball (or whatever the obsession of the moment is): I get it, Ball stories are traffic and ratings gold. But media obsessions always run the risk of alienating thousands of core consumers at the expense of millions of drive-by gawkers. The complaints about LaVar Ball coverage -- and that of Tim Tebow before -- have been almost as plentiful as, well, LaVar Ball stories. And as ESPN increasingly moves toward an unbundled world, it’ll need to do whatever it can to serve the fans who pay for its products, and tracking Ball across the globe -- yes, ESPN actually had a reporter in Lithuania covering the Ball family -- strikes me as a distraction from what most fans want. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said it well in a postgame rant in January:

“There’s nothing interesting about that story. Do you know how many parents of my players have probably been at home like, ‘Man, he should be playing my kid.’ And yet, we’re sticking a microphone in his face because, apparently, it gets ratings. I don’t know who cares, but people care. Or else ESPN wouldn’t be spending what they’re spending to send reporters to Lithuania, when they laid off people who were writing really substantial pieces.”

Although it’s hard to directly connect LaVar Ball traffic to ESPN layoffs, Kerr’s point is valid. Covering LaVar Ball at a time when ESPN’s journalism lineup has thinned gives an impression of a lack of seriousness. For a company that’s long been fighting to enhance its journalistic reputation, lack of seriousness is never a good thing. Good journalism requires the discipline to dig and find stories people don’t know about, and the discipline to stay away from easy clicks.

Transparency: ESPN needs to make this a higher priority. No one expects the network to openly discuss everything inside its walls, but there are times when ESPN has hurt itself publicly by not explaining decisions or failing to make important corrections in a timely manner. An obvious example of the latter was the year-plus-long delay in correcting a Chris Mortensen story about Deflategate that allowed the story -- and the anger of Patriots fans -- to build to an explosive level.

A more current example was controversy surrounding Mark Schlabach’s Feb. 25 piece on alleged FBI wiretaps between Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins, a key figure in the FBI’s investigation of corruption in college basketball. As well laid out by Deadspin, there’s a legitimate question regarding the actual date of the wiretaps and whether it fits into the broader timeline of Arizona’s recruiting of DeAndre Ayton. On March 1, Sports Illustrated reported that an FBI source had backed Miller’s account of events. At this point, ESPN’s response has been to issue the traditional “we stand by our story” statement. But that well-worn phrase is better used when someone has objected broadly to a story, not when specific facts have been presented that cast doubt. ESPN owes more than a “we stand by our story” and, in general, needs to open up when confronted with challenges to its journalism. Organizations with strong journalism reputations must be the first ones to clear up confusion that emanates from their reporting, or else that reputation is put at permanent risk.

Focus on stories, not stats: I’m as much of a stat geek as the next guy, but what people connect with are great stories, not great stats. (If you need an example, watch this piece, and don’t tell me you didn’t tear up a bit. Now tell me how many points per game this guy averages. No, you don’t care, do you?)

Yes, the ubiquity of highlights has forced changes to ESPN’s signature SportsCenter franchise, but recent adjustments to that show reveal a move back toward the highlight as a meaningful atomic unit. I think the similar move back toward storytelling is an equally important one.

“One of our greatest attributes is storytelling; it’s so important,” Druley said. “But we can also tell stories inside our events. I may not care about the University of Georgia when they play Auburn, but if I tune in for 10 minutes and you give me a reason to watch or a person to root for or make me pick a side, I’m going to be more engaged.”

A typical example: When ESPN broadcast the Texas vs. Oklahoma college football game in October, it told the story of Texas freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Sam’s father, Ross, had desperately wanted to play football for Texas but never did. And, sadly, Ross also never got the chance to see Sam play for Texas, drowning during a triathlon in 2013.

“Going into a break, we told that story with some amazing pictures,” Druley said. “The last picture was the kid when he was 5 years old. We encapsulated the entire story that would normally be told in 4-5 minutes and [because it was during a live game] we did it in 15-20 seconds.”

This instinct to find and tell great stories -- whatever the time constraints -- is a smart one. Stories remain the lifeblood of journalism, whether you have two hours (30 for 30), 30 minutes (Outside the Lines), 15 minutes (ESPN The Magazine), six minutes (SportsCenter) or 20 seconds (during a game).

The line between ESPN’s journalism and its business partners. It’s the most perilous border in ESPN’s journalistic territory, and it needs to be constantly and aggressively patrolled. There was a reminder of that in December, when Major League Baseball complained to ESPN about Dan Le Batard’s aggressive interview of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. It’s unclear whether that conversation had any impact on how ESPN covers Major League Baseball, but to some extent, it doesn’t matter. It’s the mere fact the conversation took place that rightfully gives fans and ESPN critics pause.

It should be said that ESPN is not the only journalistic entity that also owns sports rights. But it is the most prominent, and, because of history such as the Frontline mess, critics justifiably point out these kinds of potential issues, if for no other reason, to keep ESPN on its toes. As public editor, I can say that it’s difficult to definitively prove that specific coverage is affected by business relationships. But it’s equally hard to believe it isn’t, at least to some degree. It would be beneficial for ESPN to occasionally talk publicly about how it manages the intersection of its business relationships and its journalism.

Some viewers have raised frustrations around ESPN’s many talk shows, such as First Take, Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn and others. There are two reasons I didn’t really tackle this issue: (1) These aren’t really journalistic entities; they’re entertainment with an occasional dash of journalism, and (2) these shows, despite the enmity some have for them, aren’t going anywhere. They attract viewers. The simple solution for those who detest ESPN’s talk shows is not to watch them. But clearly millions do, and so the roots these shows have are only growing stronger. Although I’m personally not a frequent consumer of these shows, I also can’t overlook the economics. The success of these shows is part of how ESPN funds efforts such as its larger investigative teams, and that’s a tradeoff I’m comfortable with.

Now, a few closing thoughts.

The most highly charged issue I wrote about in my two years in this role began when then-SC6 host Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter. My take -- that it wasn’t a good look for a journalist to use an inflammatory label when facts were available to make her case -- certainly led to the most controversy I faced in this role. Interestingly, that blowback came largely from a constituency I didn’t anticipate: other journalists.

It’s a sign of changing times -- and, to me, not a good change -- that so many in journalism feel it’s now OK to substitute opinions for what we used to call facts. I’ve been on the digital side of journalism for 22 years now, and while I have taken what is about as far from a traditional path through this industry as possible, I do not believe everything old should be replaced with something new. Opinions are opinions and facts are facts, and I believe any conflating of the two does damage to the credibility of journalism. There are many who think this new type of journalism -- where everyone is open about biases and speaks “the truth” -- is a good thing.

But if you believe the proliferation of more opinionated journalism via social media or 24/7 cable newscasts has been good for the profession, look at this chart.

As far as I can tell, as social media has moved to center stage, cable news ratings have soared and the ratio of fact-based journalism to opinion journalism has moved heavily toward the latter, the public’s trust in journalism has reached an all-time low. Sure, maybe the most recent plummet has more to do with Trump’s incessant carping about the media, but the double-digit-point drop that preceded it would seem to be cause for some concern. So while I have great personal respect for many who disagreed with me on Hill’s comment -- and even more for Hill herself -- I unequivocally stand by my position.

As for the future of the public editor at ESPN, I obviously hope the company commits to the role. There are some internally who feel strongly that the position should be maintained; there are others who feel that the role is unnecessary in light of the many sports sites and social media practitioners critiquing ESPN on a daily basis (a similar point was made by The New York Times when it dropped the public editor role last year).

Although it is true that criticism of all journalism is prevalent, that criticism doesn’t always come with the context you get by knowing an organization well. Richard Deitsch, who just announced that he is leaving Sports Illustrated and will join The Athletic, and James Andrew Miller, who literally co-wrote the book about ESPN, possess that knowledge and access -- at least through sources. (If you need any more evidence of that, see Miller's scoop about the reason for Skipper’s sudden departure).

But few can go to Bristol or New York and walk the halls of ESPN, and I believe that to be valuable. That doesn’t mean there weren’t people at ESPN who didn’t cooperate with me or failed to return emails and/or calls. There were. But they were the minority.

It’s also worth noting that ESPN is one of the few journalistic entities in the United States that still maintains a public editor position, with PBS and NPR being among the few others. Before The New York Times cut, The Washington Post eliminated its public editor role in 2013. None of the major networks has one, and none of the cable news networks has -- at least to my knowledge -- ever had one. I think having a public editor or ombudsman would keep ESPN in a small club that’s worth being a part of.

Skipper gave his take back in November: “We now have a culture where there are not a few arbiters of what matters,” he said. “Everyone’s an arbiter. Everyone’s a publisher. We’re OK with being scrutinized. We have an ombudsman, we invite our fans to give their impressions. I think a company this large, this important and this influential needs to have scrutiny.”

And, finally, thanks to those of you who were willing to engage in debates via email, Twitter or Facebook about conclusions I raised or opinions I expressed. Despite the wave of trolls anyone writing columns must face, beneath it all were many lively debates and discussions about the future of ESPN, the role of journalism at the network and the ethics that should underpin what any journalistic entity does. The debates weren’t always pretty, and I certainly didn’t always keep my cool. But they were productive in establishing the reader’s point of view.

I have also appreciated the thoughtful feedback I’ve gotten over these past few years from many inside ESPN, and many more outside. When you become a public editor, your job is to make calls and express opinions. I had no expectation that everyone would agree with me on those opinions; to think otherwise would be not to understand the role. I also never suggested I was right about everything, because most of the topics I tackled were not black and white, they were -- like most issues we face in the world today -- some shade of gray.

Those of us who serve in these roles have no monopoly on the truth. No one person does. As I’ve always said, those who think they know everything are worth listening to about nothing. So I thank you for listening, and for being willing to challenge me on things you saw differently.

Now, would all of you Patriots fans kindly mind getting out of my personal Twitter feed? (And, yes, that was a rhetorical question. See you in September).