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ESPN Is Still the King of TV Land—But its Empire Is Shrinking

ESPN 3-D Television Launch Event For 2010 FIFA World CupESPN 3-D Television Launch Event For 2010 FIFA World Cup
One of several studios on the Bristol, Conn. ESPN campus Bloomberg via Getty Images

The so-called “Upfront” pitches that TV networks make to advertisers at this time of year always have a tinge of desperation to them. In part, that’s because of the looming threat from the web and various digital services—which are almost never mentioned by name, even as they are dismissed as being irrelevant. But ESPN’s presentation this week had more than the usual whiff of defensiveness about it.

Maybe it was the appearance of two stars from the musical Hamilton, which felt a little out of sync with the typical ESPN audience. Or maybe it was the ads that are trying to convince people that watching ESPN is somehow better than Netflix and Instagram. Or maybe it was the fact that no one referred to one of the high-profile broadcasters who recently left the network by name, in the same way Chinese politicians don’t talk about colleagues who have suddenly gone missing.

But what possible reason could ESPN have to be defensive? Isn’t it the most valuable network in all of television land, bringing in billions of dollars for its parent Walt Disney (DIS), thanks to its stranglehold on key sporting events like the NFL and NBA? It sure is, and it sure does.

The problem with being at the top of your game, however, is that there’s really only one place to go, and that’s down. And there have been increasing signs that ESPN is under pressure from cord-cutting consumers, who have been dropping their subscriptions in favor of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It’s also under pressure from its own business model, which involves paying tens of billions of dollars to lock up broadcast rights for every sport it can get its hands on.

Last year, the news that ESPN had shed more than 7 million subscribers since 2013 shook the entire broadcasting and TV sector to its foundations, wiping about $60 billion from the market cap of Disney, Viacom and others. Most of those stocks have recovered somewhat, but the trend that started the selloff has not changed. Disney’s latest quarter saw another drop in the number of ESPN subscribers, although the company didn’t disclose the exact number.

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Whenever this topic comes up, including during the Upfronts, ESPN CEO John Skipper remains defiant that nothing much has changed for the network. It still has 92 million subscribers, and it still has exclusive access to the best programming, he says. And once new metrics from Nielsen are available next year—which will include out-of-home viewing, a huge category for ESPN—the network’s reach will be even larger than it has appeared to be in the past. “We think we still have a little swagger,” said Skipper.

Not enough swagger to consider launching a Netflix-style, over-the-top streaming service of its own, however. When asked whether that was a possibility, Skipper provided a single word: “No.” There has been speculation that the network might make such a move, but some analysts have been skeptical of its ability to get users to pay enough for the service to make it worthwhile.

This is how ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza deals with critics. Watch:

Not surprisingly, much of the Upfront presentation was about the new things ESPN has, such as The Undefeated, a new news and commentary site about sports, race, and culture. But even those new things were a reminder of what it has lost, such as Bill Simmons, who created Grantland for ESPN—the site that The Undefeated was modeled after—and then left and took most of his staff with him. Simmons now runs his own website and podcasting business, known as The Ringer.

Since the Upfronts are all about advertising, ESPN also talked about a new service it has launched called LiveConnect, which it says can provide information about the emotional state of ESPN viewers and thus allow advertisers to target them with the right ads. And all that did was remind many of those watching that Magna Global, the ad-buying arm of global giant Interpublic, recently moved $250 million worth of its ad budget from television to YouTube.

There’s no question that ESPN is still a hugely successful business. Sports is one of the few remaining traditional TV offerings that large numbers of people are willing to pay substantial amounts of money for. And that functions as a kind of moat around the network, protecting the castle within. But the digital barbarians are at the gate, and their torches and pitchforks are at the ready. The conclusion isn’t in doubt, only the speed with which it arrives.