Although a bit dated, a piece from Slate.com entitled, “When Did ESPN Stop Doing Sports?,” fit my February sports mood. In the author’s words,
Like another cable giant, MTV, ESPN seems to have forgotten its original mandate. Remember when you could tune in to ESPN and actually have a good chance of seeing sports? Sure it might be bowling, or rodeo, or Australian-rules football, but at least it was action, competition, well-trained athletes giving their all for the sport they love … ESPN is far more interested in showing you people talking about sports rather than the sports themselves. The network has become the Worldwide Leader in Hot Air.
The analogy to MTV’s (de)evolution had been on my mind for several months. Since this article ran in 2002, the one-time sports network has only added to the trend with endless re-runs of the likes of “World Series of Poker 200x” and “Tilt” as well as bombastic sports reporters yelling at each other like junior high boys. With two days of great Champions League matchups, ESPN will carry one game — Manchester United v. AC Milan — Wednesday afternoon.
In terms of simple static economics, the presumption is that such changes reflect profit maximizing behavior by network executives. While, no doubt, Disney is trying to maximize profits, in a dynamic marketplace with limited information, there is no guarantee that a particular decision is, in fact, profit maximizing over the long haul. TV executives, like all managers, make mistakes.
As one sports fan, I know that they are losing my TV-time. More and more, I’m tuning out ESPN and tuning in Fox Soccer Channel, the Golf Channel, OLN, Fox Regional Channels, and other outlets for actual competition. As a sports economist, I recognize that a sample size of one is mere anecdote. George Stigler (I think) once said, “Anecdote ain’t science.” Still, it causes me to wonder what the long-run effects of ESPN’s strategy will be for their viewership.