ESPN has become the face of the seismic shift in sports broadcasting after losing subscribers and laying off employees at a disturbing rate over the past five years for what most attribute to its outdated commitment to billion-dollar TV packages. As more and more sports fans cut the cable cord and transplant their money into online platforms, ESPN is not seeing the return it needs from its $1.9 billion contract with the NFL running through 2021 and its $24 billion deal with the NBA through 2025.
Down over 100 employees since April’s sweeping layoffs, the Worldwide Leader is working to recover — and fast — to keep up with a trend one 18-year-old is putting off college to spread the word about.
Hired by the Vikings in September, Jonah Stillman has been tasked with tapping into his own age group of NFL fans, Generation Z, and their viewing habits, which are changing the way content producers think about sports.
“We may not be your core consumers right now, but five or 10 or 15 years down the line, we are going to be your avid spenders, your avid fans, and the time to get on our radar is now,” Stillman told The Post recently after returning from a two-week trip giving speeches with his father, David, through their company, “Gen Z Guru.”
“The Vikings realize that and given my expertise — I’ve now done three national studies, one global study on Gen Z and I’ve done focus groups and worked with a lot of other companies — they realize that I can be a voice of Gen Z and add a more youthful opinion when it comes to looking into recruiting the youngest generation of fans.”
Popular opinion is leaning digitally at a rate teams and networks are grasping to wrap their heads around and match with the depth and quality of their content. What separates Generation Z fans (born between 1995 and 2012) from their predecessors, Stillman has found, is their innate desire not to just watch games, but to engage with the league.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of platforms at the same time because we’re not actually great multitaskers, we’re great task-switchers,” he said. “So a Gen Z’er will watch on the TV for 10 seconds, look at their phone for the next two minutes, then back at their laptop screen, then the next 20 minutes they’re back on the TV screen.”
With every stat, highlight, meme and fantasy football score at fans’ fingertips, and less time spent watching the game on cable television, are NFL “ratings” really declining?
Stillman believes the NFL is as popular as ever, and the problem lies in a simple equation: The more viewing options there are, the more traditional TV loses its luster. More importantly, he says, we need an overhaul of the Nielsen standard of measuring viewership if networks want to get an accurate read on the success of their content and advertisers want to know where to invest.
“Regardless of what industry you’re in, people are going to start realizing [that the better investment is outside of cable],” Stillman said. “You know, we’re spending X amount of money on this type of campaign when we could spend half the amount and get double the reach and double the engagement if we find the platforms that these teenagers are on and really implement the right type of content.”
Count ESPN among the major networks starting to buy into the consumer reality.
This week, ESPN launched two new initiatives targeting its online audiences. Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take” podcast made its debut on ESPN2 as “Barstool Van Talk” late Tuesday night, and it will air weekly at 1 a.m. ET and otherwise “live across” ESPN’s digital and social platforms, according to the network. ESPN then welcomed Viceland’s comedy duo, Desus & Mero, on Wednesday as part of the network’s plan to air their NBA talk show in 90-second segments – the ideal amount of time for content on social media.
Since Sept. 22, ESPN has been combining traditional TV and online streaming viewership when releasing its ratings numbers. This way, its advertising clients can base their financial packages off one number that includes all of ESPN’s content. More than 50 percent of those clients have gone even further, said ESPN President of Global Sales & Marketing Ed Erhardt, agreeing to deals solely based on out-of-home viewing.
Few would be surprised if that number reached 100 percent someday soon. Come spring 2018, ESPN will offer its own online subscription package, allowing sports fans to buy individualized content without paying for cable or satellite TV to watch ESPN.
The mobile-friendly product will include more than 10,000 live sporting events per year, Disney CEO Bob Iger explained, and consumers can access them through monthly subscriptions or game by game.
“Eventually, that app may possibly become the only way you watch ESPN,” Iger said at a Vanity Fair summit in Los Angeles last week.
Until that day comes, ESPN’s competition could be growing.
With more advanced and less expensive technology comes more opportunities for league-specific networks and teams to give fans what they’re looking for in following their favorite teams and players. Streaming services like ESPN’s are expected to be pricier in the beginning, as networks look to offset any revenues lost to cord-cutting. In the meantime, consumers have plenty of options to turn to — with increasing levels of quality.
Don Sperling has lived those changes in his 11 seasons with the Giants as their Vice President and Executive Producer of Entertainment.
“When you’re talking about live television, our games get big ratings and our taped shoulder [interview] programs get much less due to amount of choices here on a local level,” Sperling said of the Giants’ original programming, which he has helped direct since 2007.
“Over the course of last year, we had almost 76 million views on Facebook and between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, we had almost 48 million of those 76 million happen during the season.
“So compare that to TV … I can tell you that the difference between them is monstrous.”
The Giants’ success on their digital platforms would not be as strong without the help of the TriCaster, Sperling explains. The multi-camera system, introduced by NewTek in 2005, allows smaller production teams to stream their content directly to their audience, making their highlights and events look like those on network TV.
“The live aspect, and using Facebook and the Tricaster for our live events, the results are increasing and growing all the time,” Sperling said, “because it’s shorter and obviously it appeals to the demographic of the Millennial and Gen Z and people in general.”
TriCaster has gained a foothold thanks to its accessibility — high school and college athletic programs can purchase and install it for $5,000 in its most simple form — bringing fans directly to the source and closer to the action.
“We have seen tremendous growth in engagement through pieces that allow fans to look through a different lens, whether it is authentic behind-the-scenes content, exclusive access or personality-oriented pieces,” said Stephen Dombroski, Associate Athletics Director for Communications at St. John’s.
Less worrisome for St. John’s and the Giants, but a potential deal-breaker for bigger players with larger audiences, is whether the Internet can expand as fast as fans’ interests. As more viewers begin streaming games and shows online, networks face the risk of the system shutting down, unable to support the number of viewers.
Showtime, for example, could lose millions of dollars after customers sued the network for issues with the pay-per-view system during the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather fight. Viewers argued they missed some or all of the Aug. 26 event because the high demand caused technical failures.
A similar conflict occurred last week during the United States men’s national team’s loss to Trinidad & Tobago on beIN Sports, when the site experienced technical difficulties — which perhaps was a blessing in the end for most fans, as the Americans’ dreadful performance cost them their first World Cup berth in three decades.
“So the big question is: When can the Internet support something like 110 million concurrent streams of the Super Bowl without compromising the consumer experience?” posed the editorial director of Sports Video Group, Ken Kerschbaumer, a longtime expert on sports production. The Super Bowl has been live-streamed online the past two years — also with disruptions — but has yet to come close to the 100-million mark.
“That is a question that is still waiting to be answered.”
ESPN is hoping it has that answer before making the digital jump next spring.