ESPN demonstrates how a monopoly works in the contemporary media landscape, a landscape in which the cost of information is diminishing and the necessity of diversified revenue streams is increasing. By distributing content across multiple platforms, like their website, their television programs, their magazine and their mobile applications, ESPN maintains a steady position as the leader in sports news.
No competitor has managed to knock ESPN off its horse, primarily because ESPN can outbid practically any other network or media group for content. The media groups of individual sports leagues like Major League Baseball pose an interesting threat to ESPN. These groups develop their own networks designed to produce content for one sport only, like baseball. They’re capable of offering products that ESPN can’t due to the amount and variation of content that ESPN covers.
Fortunately for ESPN, the idea of partnering and revenue sharing is appealing to these networks due to ESPN’s wide audience base. What makes ESPN special is their ability to deliver a set of experiences that other networks cannot compete with. When content becomes homogenous between networks, it’s the availability and delivery of the content that makes a difference, and right now, no one delivers sports news like ESPN. In today’s media landscape, it’s extremely difficult to dominate a market. It’s difficult to even stay solvent for many news organizations.
Bankruptcy, or the threat of bankruptcy, haunts just about every major newspaper in the country, including the Chicago Tribune, who filed for Chapter 11 at the end of 2008. Broadcast audiences in most large cities are divided up among the big network affiliates like ABC, NBC and FOX, and magazine subscriptions and revenues continue to decline. Despite uncertain times, one media group maintains a monopoly on their market. Often referred to as a “cartel,” Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) has dominated the sports media industry across multiple platforms for decades.
Seemingly always multiple steps ahead of their largest competitors, CBS and NBC Sports, ESPN has developed mobile apps, a network of television channels, a documentary series and other original content that simply overwhelms their audience. Being the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” comes with its criticisms, of course. ESPN is often accused of biased reporting and engaging in conflicts of interest, notably, their development of the Longhorn Network with the University of Texas. Regardless, consumers turn to ESPN for sports news and content.
In their mission statement, they say they endeavor “To serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played,” and that “People are our most valuable resource, and care and respect for employees and each other will always be at the heart of our operations. ” ESPN is in the unique position of being the people’s champion of the sports media landscape. Since its inception in September of 1979, ESPN has appealed to consumers on a more conversational, personable level than most other sports outlets or media organizations.
The network has developed personalities like Chris “Boomer” Berman and Stuart Scott who involve their audience by combining references to pop-culture with sports. As a result, ESPN has developed as an incredibly strong brand, known for being “cool. ” Competitors like CBS and NBC Sports are certainly well established brands of their own, but their brands aren’t as “hip” as ESPN. By generating cross-platform content with ESPN the Magazine, ESPN. com and the more recent ESPN ScoreCenter mobile app, ESPN has carved up the sports media landscape to their liking, dictating how information is disseminated.
While ESPN has done an amazing job up until now, they face the danger of losing specialized audiences to channels like the MLB Network and NFL Network who siphon off consumers with very specific sports interests. With companies like Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) pioneering new applications like “MLB at Bat” and inking new television deals that revolutionize the way baseball fans follow the national pastime, ESPN has to be concerned. It’s unlikely ESPN will ever lose all of their broadcasting rights to MLB games, their audience is just too large, but once more baseball fans realize their interests might be better served with MLB. om and the MLB Network, ESPN could see declines in ratings and viewership to programming like.
Sunday Night Baseball. In order to prevent that, ESPN has to consider mergers and collaborations. While the MLB might not be interested, yet, ESPN has already reached out to the NFL Network about the possibility of combining their ESPN Classics channel with the NFL Network. By doing so, the long arm of ESPN could bolster viewership and the specialized content of the NFL Network could expand advertising revenues.
Whether a similar deal could be made with the MLB Network, which, as the MLBAM case study stated, “is the gold standard among sports leagues,” is uncertain, but often these specialized networks see themselves as broadcast partners, not competitors of ESPN. By Harold Vogel’s own definition in his text Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, ESPN is a monopoly. There are no close substitutes for their output, they set prices, and there are barriers that prevent potential competitors from entering the market.
In an article that appeared in the Sports Business Journal Daily in 2009 entitled “Industry wonders who will challenge ESPN,” staff writer John Ourand says that if a competitor were to emerge, they would have to do it between 2011 and 2014, when many of the major sports leagues TV deals expire. Regardless of expiration dates, ESPN is capable of outbidding just about anyone when it comes to content packages. They outbid FOX by $100 million in 2009 to secure the rights to the College Football Bowl Series through 2014. ESPN’s foothold on the sports media landscape is intimidating.
Effectively, ESPN has constructed barriers to entry because no one is capable of competing with them on the same level across multiple platforms. Additionally, they’re usually willing to share revenues with other networks if it means increased viewership on their own channels. Vogel defines entertainment as that which produces a pleasurable and satisfying experience and cites Becker (1965) and DeSerpa (1971) for suggesting that the demand for leisure is affected in a complicated way by the cost of time both to produce and to consume.
ESPN does a marvelous job maximizing the return on the amount of time spent consuming their products. It takes a mere moment to absorb the final score of the Chicago Bulls game via the ScoreCenter app. It takes just minutes to read an article about the game on ESPN. com and a consumer can spend upwards of thirty minutes watching SportsCenter where they can see highlights of the game and hear an analysis of it. In chapter two of Vogel’s text, it is explained that distribution power trumps control of content: “The best content in the world is not worth nything if it cannot be made readily available to audiences. ”
So, what is the result of the strongest distribution power and the best content in the world? The result is ESPN, a monopoly. The breakdown of gatekeeping that has affected so many media companies hasn’t resulted in a loss of control or profitability for ESPN. Instead, ESPN has embraced the greater empowerment of the user that Vogel’s speaks of. Increased “participation, engagement, connectivity, customization, personalization and collaboration” between users and the content ESPN creates has actually helped ESPN maintain and grow their audience.
Viewers now send in videos to SportsCenter that are considered for segments like the “Top 10” and the “Not Top 10,” which highlight the best and worst of the week in sports. SportsCenter, ESPN. com and some of their original programming like SportsNation rely heavily on audience polls. SportsNation, in particular, is a program almost completely dedicated to polling fans about topics like the best slam dunks, touchdowns, even the best athlete’s beard (James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder).
By engaging their viewers, ESPN continues to improve the user experience, which Vogel explains is what media companies are actually selling, a set of experiences. Fantasy sports are another experience ESPN is trying to sell. ESPN’s biggest competitor in the fantasy sports market is Yahoo!. It is one frontier where ESPN hasn’t completely dominated, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying. Fantasy Sports are now incorporated into their original programming, giving the average player insights as to who to “start” and who to “bench” for a particular game.
It’s just one more way for ESPN to engage their audience and diversify the digital distribution of their products. I think ESPN is an exemplary media content producer. In fact, I aspire to work for them one day. I acknowledge the potential issues associated with being considered a “cartel,” but I subscribe to the notion that if you can’t beat them, join them. I’m not entirely convinced of their biased reporting, either. ESPN employs a diverse variety of reporters who frequently disagree with one another. Additionally, they have provided a platform for female reporters pioneering their way into sports journalism.
The latest irritations from viewers revolve around over-reporting of certain topics, like Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. I personally don’t mind. ESPN does an excellent job engaging their viewers, diversifying content across multiple platforms, and embracing and monetizing digital distribution of information. I do think a competitor or two will come along in the near future, but I don’t think the downfall of ESPN is in anywhere in sight. Viewers love ESPN because it feels like home, and no one is ready to move just yet.