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Home | Blog | ESPN and the Bursting of the Sports Bubble

ESPN and the Bursting of the Sports Bubble

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Tags Media and CultureMonopoly and Competition

When the cable TV sports giant ESPN announced 100 layoffs recently, including letting go a number of high-profile broadcasters, a lot of people took notice, and well they should: things no longer are business as usual in sports broadcasting, and we are not even at the beginning of the end, and maybe not even the end of the beginning.

Like the slow crashing of the retail sector as online purchase firms like Amazon begin their domination, we are seeing a sea change in sports broadcasting and that is going to mean big changes are down the road not only for ESPN, but for all of the sports entities that depend upon the huge payouts that ESPN provides. To put it mildly, a lot of people are about to see their lives change drastically as consumer choices drive sports broadcasting in a new direction.

Enough with the superlatives. What is happening with ESPN, and why is it important? As Clay Travis of the sports website Outkick the Coverage has been writing for more than a year, the main ESPN business plan, the one that brings in the most revenues to the firm, is doomed to near-extinction, and there is nothing ESPN can do about it. Writes Travis:

In the past five years ESPN has lost 11,346,000 subscribers according to Nielsen data.

If you combine that with ESPN2 and ESPNU subscriber losses this means that ESPN has lost over a billion dollars in cable and satellite revenue just in the past five years, an average of $200 million each year. That total of a billion dollars hits ESPN in the pocketbook not just on a yearly basis, but for every year going forward.

It's gone forever.

Since it began to grow in popularity in the late 1970s, cable (and later, satellite) television has offered its customers coverage with “bundles,” that is different payments allow cable subscribers to expand their viewership as payments increase. For example, a “basic” cable subscription would allow the customers to view, say, 15 channels including the ABC-CBS-NBC-PBS lineup plus other channels such as CNN or Fox. A higher-tier subscription would add other channels, including ESPN and its associated channels and others such as The Food Channel or assorted movie channels.

One problem with bundling, of course, is that subscribers will pay for channels that they rarely or do not watch. For example, I have a basic subscription with Direct TV, but maybe watch 10 channels at most, even though dozens are available. (I don’t include ESPN or any of the other sports channels in my monthly package.)

As technology has improved in telecommunications, the ability of providers to further segment packages has meant that cable and satellite subscribers are able to eliminate the channels they don’t want to watch, and that means that many are unhooking from ESPN. Continues Travis:

ESPN is losing 10,000 subscribers every day so far in 2017. In the past six years they have lost 13 million subscribers and that subscriber loss is escalating each year. That's billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Every year for the next five years ESPN is spending more and bringing in less. You don't have to be Warren Buffett to see that's a business problem. 

He goes on to the heart of the matter:

ESPN is spending over eight billion dollars on sporting rights this year and by 2021 I believe they will be losing money regardless of how many people they fire. ESPN can't fire employees into profitability. It's just not possible. These firings are going to become a yearly thing and they still aren't going to prevent the business from dying. 

True, ESPN, as well as all commercial broadcasters, receive advertising revenue, but advertising alone, along with subscriptions from people who choose to purchase ESPN in their cable/satellite packages, will not be enough for the network to meet its obligations to the various organizations it pays for the rights to broadcast their events. From the National Football League (NFL), to the National Hockey League (NHL), to the National Basketball Association (NBA) to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), ESPN has paid billions of dollars, money that is funneled into high athlete salaries, not to mention salaries of coaches, university athletic directors, and, indirectly into the building and maintaining of magnificent sports facilities.

The revenues lost to ESPN are lost forever, and even given the rise of smart phones and Internet streaming, the current state of affairs is unsustainable and the sports landscape is going to change, and the changes will be extensive. It is here that Austrian economics gives us insight into how at least some of the changes will proceed.

Carl Menger, who we know as the “founder” of the Austrian school of economics, in his path-breaking book Principles of Economics in 1871 demonstrated conclusively that the value of the factors of production was based not on costs derived from other costs of production, but rather the value of the factors was imputed via the value consumers placed upon the final goods. This view contradicted the standard British classical view that the value of consumption goods was derived from the value of the factors of production, and it placed Menger in the Pantheon of the early Marginalists.

In laying out his theory, Menger used tobacco and the factors used to produce it. If people suddenly stopped using tobacco, he reasoned, then the value of the factors would change quickly relative to their ability to be transferred to other uses. The more specialized the factor, the greater the change in its value. For example, the land on which tobacco is grown would then be used for other purposes, such as growing corn or wheat, or even pasture for cows or sheep. Highly-specialized tools used only for growing or harvesting tobacco, however, would see a steep drop in value and maybe would have to be abandoned altogether.

What does this have to do with the demise of ESPN? As noted earlier, the network pays billions of dollars for rights to broadcast sports events, and it is unlikely that as ESPN loses the revenues that permit it to pay large sums, other networks will be able to take up that slack. That means the organizations that now receive this money are looking at “haircuts” down the road, which includes the NCAA and collegiate athletic teams.

The ESPN funding allows for the network to broadcast a number of collegiate sports events that ordinarily would not rate enough of an audience, and its large payouts also allow for coaches to receive record-high salaries that would not be possible if these programs depended just on ticket sales and other donations. And while it is tempting to say that “ESPN pays for this,” in reality, it is the consumer of cable/satellite television that ultimately decides the size of the ESPN payouts, and consumers are stating their preferences with their checkbooks, and there is nothing ESPN can do about it.

Without cable/satellite subscribers being willing to pay extra for the sports channels, and without the viewership that draws advertisers, ESPN revenues will fall, and that means that the factors that make up the “product” that appears on ESPN broadcasts also are going to lose value, as long as other networks don’t take up the slack (and it is doubtful they will). Thus, one is looking at a long, steady decline and the world of televised sports is going to have to adjust to the new reality.

Unfortunately, as Travis has pointed out many times, ESPN during this ratings slide has taken a hard turn toward the political left, which has further alienated a lot of conservative viewers. Writes Travis:

As ESPN has lost 10,000 cable and satellite subscribers every day in 2017, seen ratings collapse for all original programming, and recently embarked on the firing of 100 employees as part of a desperate cost cutting move to save its business. The network’s sports media defenders have desperately argued that the network’s embrace of far left wing politics has not had any impact on its collapsing viewership. That’s despite the fact that there have been two different studies that have demonstrated Republican voters have abandoned the network’s original programming in the past year.

In that regard, one can argue that ESPN has done what numerous (and especially elite) colleges and universities have done the past several years: create a hostile atmosphere for white male students all the while wanting them to be paid customers. One cannot both seek to offend and attack the same people one wishes to purchase their services without courting disaster, yet higher education and ESPN are doing just that.

To a certain extent, one can argue that both higher education and ESPN have benefited from “bubble” economies, and as consumer choice becomes directed elsewhere, the bubbles burst. As Carl Menger demonstrated, the bursting of the bubbles will mean that some factor owners will have to receive less pay in order to remain employed, while other factors will have to be transferred to other uses altogether or simply become unemployed. All soothing rhetoric aside, the world of sports broadcasting is going to see major changes in the next decade as consumers have their say.

Bill Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Matt Dempsey https://www.flickr.com/photos/matt44053/
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