What Yahoo’s NFL broadcast means for the future of ESPN

October 26, 2015, 8:58 PM UTC

Yahoo broadcast an NFL game on Sunday, the first ever global live-stream of a regular season football game. Was this an interesting historical footnote or a glimpse into the future of broadcast media? Probably a bit of both.

The broadcast failed to set any records—apart from just being the first of its kind—and feels as much like a desperate move by Yahoo (YHOO) to remain relevant as it does a ground-breaking vision of what TV could become. But it is also a glimpse into a potentially disturbing future for broadcast giants like ESPN.

If you’re a sports fan or ESPN loyalist, the idea that Yahoo’s broadcast of a single, largely unimportant (Bills vs. Jaguars) NFL game could pose any kind of threat to the network probably strikes you as laughable. When it comes to sports broadcasting, ESPN is like a massive, impenetrable fortress, and Yahoo is the pipsqueak throwing pebbles at the palace gates.

As my colleague Dan Primack has pointed out, the Sunday broadcast involved a game that hardly anyone probably cares about outside the local markets of the two teams—where the game was available on television as usual—and the viewership numbers Yahoo has reported are likely inflated. For one thing, the stream auto-played on Tumblr, the massive social platform that Yahoo owns, and so the likely viewership was orders of magnitude lower than the top-line 33 million number Yahoo is throwing around.

In other words, depending on what you believe, Yahoo’s experiment was somewhere between a ho-hum historical footnote and an outright disaster. But if looked at another way, it was one more crack in that impenetrable ESPN fortress.

There are signs of other cracks as well: The network recently laid off more than 300 of its staff in an attempt to reduce costs, in part because the growth of its subscriber base is slowing. The fear of that process helped drive Disney’s stock down by close to 10% during a recent sell-off of broadcasting-related stocks. Cord-cutting is no longer just a bogeyman that media outlets scoff at—it has become a reality, and a painful one.

But the bigger picture is the change in consumer behavior that cord-cutting is part of, says media veteran Jason Krikorian, co-founder of streaming media startup Slingbox (now owned by Echostar) and a partner with VC firm DCM Ventures. Younger viewers don’t want cable bundles. They are looking for an “a la carte” experience, where they can watch exactly what they want to, when they want to, without paying for a lot of extraneous content.

That phenomenon favors niche networks and services that focus on specific types of content, Krikorian says. And while ESPN may feel like a niche already because it focuses entirely on sports, the reality is that many subscribers probably only watch a fraction of what ESPN offers, because they are only interested in one specific sport, or even one specific team within that sport.

“I can see ESPN kind of being picked away at from the bottom, and eventually being disrupted by that kind of thing,” Krikorian says. The network could obviously do its own over-the-top or OTT service (something it has talked about in the past), but even that might only be a step in its ongoing disruption. Will ESPN be the one who wins in this new battle of dis-aggregation and re-aggregation, or will it be someone new?

On the other side of the equation, meanwhile, sports leagues like the NFL have effectively become their own media companies, and are busy trying to work out what that means as media gets atomized into dozens of different platforms and services like Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat.

So leagues and franchises are exploring things like the Yahoo deal, and at the same time, companies like Google (GOOG) and Yahoo are looking at ways to market themselves as an alternative to cable networks and traditional broadcast platforms. ESPN has broadcasting rights for dozens of different sports locked up for the next several years at least—that’s what the fortress walls are constructed from—but those deals will eventually expire, and there are a number of ways to get around them in the meantime if you think creatively.

Obviously, these side deals and experiments don’t amount to much at the moment, so it is tempting to dismiss them as irrelevant or even laughable. But as George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will alway seem to be invincible.” In an environment that is evolving as rapidly as the media industry, it’s never a good idea to dismiss anything outright.


You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

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