How the internet — and ESPN — killed ESPN

Last week, ESPN laid off nearly 100 on-air talent and reporters. Despite my repeated exposure to mass layoffs in the media industry (I’ve been part of one once), this one stung more than I expected. ESPN was a big part of my childhood, and the layoffs were the official end of the SportsCenter-centric, insider reporting and blog-heavy ESPN that I loved.

As someone who came to the United States when I was eight, I had to learn the English language from scratch, and there were no better ESL teachers than the sports page of the Los Angeles Times and SportsCenter later than night. At Berkeley, I kicked off my journalism career as a sports reporter. Now as a tech journalist, it’s somewhat ironic to watch the sports television ecosystem — once thought indestructible thanks to a robust subscription model —struggle thanks to the cord-cutting tools available on the internet.

I know these tools well. I don’t have a television, but I watch plenty of live sports through online subscriptions like (albeit local teams like the Giants and A’s are blacked out). But I have been increasingly reliant on illegal streams to satisfy my sports cravings.

Before you call the cops on me, consider this recent study from the British sports research firm SMG Insights: 54 percent of millennials watched illegal streams of live sports at least once, and one-third admit to regularly watching them. I would consider the study actually underestimates the ubiquity of illegal streaming among millennials. Nearly all of my sports-watching friends — take this informal survey as you will — are regular illegal streamers. There are vibrant communities on Reddit that share what streams work for what games for all sports imaginable.

But the illegal streaming phenomenon is not only limited to under 30-year olds. All age groups have cut their cable cords because they could not — or would not — pay hundreds of dollars a year to a cable package, with sports as the crown jewel. “There are fantastic, free streams out there and I doubt anyone feels any guilt in using these rather than paying the same price as a Premier League season ticket to watch live games on TV,” one person told The Guardian in a 2016 report about illegal streaming of English Premier League games. “Even my 78-year old father streams his games now.”

The same frustration exists in the United States. Despite sports package deals available in the market at a more reasonable price, it’s still too much when there are more convenient, cheaper (and free) options available — even if it means wading through sketchy websites written in Cyrillic alphabets and annoying pop-ups. Even if the bootleg video quality is grainy, most stick it out because the alternative — paying for ESPN in a larger cable package — is so far and away from their budget range.

We the streamers are not acting out of subversion. When CBS and Turner Broadcasting live-stream March Madness games on their websites for free at a high quality, most flock to these legitimate outlets. NCAA reported that this year’s March Madness attracted a record 98 million streams on their mobile app. If these companies were to charge say $5 or $10 for the entirety of the tournament, I’d imagine a vast majority would gladly pay. That logic applies to ESPN and its massive catalog of sports games.

Instead of this dim sum restaurant-esque business model, ESPN ran the other way. A Bloomberg article in March reported ESPN instead doubled-down in protecting its cable-TV bundle “at all costs”. To retain its sports broadcasting monopoly, ESPN bid more money to NBA or NFL for exclusive rights — and makes up the cost by asking for higher fees from carriers. Once carriers provided ESPN-less “skinny bundles”, ESPN’s already-declining subscription numbers began to tumble faster. Since 2011, ESPN lost 12 million subscribers.

The loss of ESPN’s appeal extends beyond live sports broadcasts and into its most popular show, SportsCenter. Reddit once again supplies instant highlights from sports games on specific communities call subreddits. You want to watch that ridiculous 3-pointer from Steph Curry? Go to Reddit’s r/nba subreddit, and watch it on different video platforms like Gfycat or Streamable. There’s no need to wait until 10 p.m. SportCenter to watch it anymore.

As I write this, the deep irony of me chastising ESPN for not providing these services when the newspaper industry has had the same problems is not lost on me. Newspapers for a long time enjoyed the fruits of holding information exclusively and selling them at a high price. The genie is now out of the bottle, and the industry is contracting quickly.

ESPN reached their point of reckoning much later, and the problem hasn’t metastasized into something cancerous yet. Despite the losses, ESPN is still very profitable, making $7.8 billion a year. It still has time, but laying off some of its best journalists looks like a huge swing and a miss.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at

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