ESPN and the Changing Sports Media Landscape

by Greg G. Armfield (Volume editor) John McGuire (Volume editor) Adam Earnheardt (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook XX, 394 Pages


ESPN and the Changing Sports Media Landscape considers the ways the network is reinventing itself as it enters its fifth decade. In their previous book, The ESPN Effect (2015), the editors made the observation that ESPN was a pervasive branded-content provider across multiple media platforms, delivering programs and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to influence how sports fans think and feel about the people who play and control these games. ESPN and the Changing Sports Media Landscape asks whether that will hold true in the 2020s and beyond. The past decade has seen momentous changes in the sports media landscape, among them the massive proliferation of mobile platforms as a major source of sports content, astronomical growth in fantasy sport and esport industries, and the increasing entanglement of sports media in contentious sociopolitical debates. The contributors to this book analyze how ESPN has navigated the shifting playing field and speculate on what the next decade might bring for ESPN and the global sports media industry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for ESPN and the Changing Sports Media Landscape
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Preface: September 8, 2011 (Greg G. Armfield / John McGuire / Adam C. Earnheardt)
  • Section One: Changes and Challenges in the Sports Media Marketplace
  • 1. Sports Programming as a Public Good: A Complicated Congressional Legacy (Stephen W. Dittmore)
  • 2. ESPN’s Search for a Sustained Global Competitive Advantage (David Bockino)
  • 3. A Whole New Ball Game? The Changing European Sports Rights Marketplace (Paul Smith)
  • 4. Ascending as the Fantasy Giant: ESPN Fantasy, Mainstreaming Fantasy Gaming, and the Role of Goliath (Brody J. Ruihley / Andrew C. Billings)
  • 5. ESPN and esports: Capturing and Joining a Rising Sport (Steve Young / Sean Fourney / Braden Bagley)
  • Section Two: Changes and Challenges in the Sports Media Political Environment
  • 6. Tune It or Stream It? Can Millennials and the Internet Save ESPN? (Kevin Hull / Miles Romney / David Cassilo)
  • 7. ESPN’s Double Standard? The Politics of Frame and Tone in Sports (Ryan Broussard / Jonathan Graffeo)
  • 8. A “Fireable Offense?”: Jemele Hill and the Rhetoric of Public Correction (Katherine L. Lavelle)
  • 9. Jemele Hill, Twitter, and ESPN: Thinking Inside the (Potter) Box (David Staton)
  • 10. Adapting to the Digital Age: ESPN’s Crisis Communication During the 2015 and 2017 Layoffs (J. Scott Smith)
  • Section Three: Changes and Challenges in the Sports Media Programming Environment
  • 11. The Present (But Not Future) ESPN Ombudsman: Levying Accountability Through the Inception of the Digital Age (Xavier Ramon / José Luis Rojas Torrijos / Andrew C. Billings)
  • 12. SportsCenter at 40: Evolving With the Times (John McGuire)
  • 13. ESPN’s Evolving Mobile Motives: Development, Consumption, Competition (Jake Kucek / Zach Humphreys / Adam C. Earnheardt / Greg G. Armfield)
  • 14. Creation of The Longhorn Network: Shadow of a Dying Business Model (Jared Johnson)
  • 15. National vs. Local: Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports Networks in the 2010s (William M. Kunz)
  • 16. “Seeking a Storybook Ending”: Examining the Future Distribution of Women’s Sporting Events (Anji L. Phillips / Dunja Antunovic)
  • Section Four: The Changing Sports Media Landscape
  • 17. “Tying the Brand to Something a Little Bit Bigger”: A Political Economy Analysis of espnW (Sarah Wolter)
  • 18. Storytelling at the Worldwide Leader in Sports: An Interview With John Walsh, Executive Vice President of ESPN, Retired (Michael L. Butterworth)
  • 19. Modern Pathways of Sports Consumption: An Interview With Paul Melvin, Senior Director of Communications for ESPN (Melvin Lewis)
  • 20. Sports Media in 2020: Patterns, Trends, and Crystal-Ball Gazing (Andreas Hebbel-Seeger / Thomas Horky)
  • 21. Visualizing 2020: The Future of Sports Media Panel Discussion
  • Editor Biographies
  • Contributor Biographies
  • Index
  • Series index

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Tables and Figures

Table 1.1: Chronological list of bills on sports and television introduced in Congress, 1978 to present.

Table 3.1: The value of (UK) live Premier League football rights.

Table 7.1: Frequencies and Chi-Squares of categorical variables.

Table 10.1: Image restoration strategies.

Table 12.1: SportsCenter story format.

Table 12.2: 2018 personality vs. content-driven SportsCenter (story format).

Table 12.3: SportsCenter story type.

Table 12.4: 2018 personality vs. content-driven SportsCenter (story type).

Table 13.1: App release dates.

Table 13.2: App rankings.

Table 15.1: Average subscribers and average revenue per average subscriber per month for five multi-sports networks, ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, FS2 and NBCSN, 2012 though 2017.

Table 15.2: Estimated affiliate revenue per average subscriber per month for Los Angeles regional sports networks, 2010–2017.

Table 15.3: Dominant regional sports network groups with NBA and NHL contracts during the 2017−18 seasons and MLB contracts at start of 2018 season.

Figure 7.1: Relationships of key variables.

Figure 9.1: The Potter Box.

Figure 20.1: A drone up close to the action in a yacht race.

Figure 20.2: 360° video projection equipment and interface.

Figure 20.3: A 360° image projection and segment.

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Preface: September 8, 2011


September 8, 2011, will be remembered as one of the more memorable days in the history of ESPN, the dominant cable sports network in the United States. The network had just celebrated its 32nd anniversary the day before. On September 8, the network announced a new rights deal with the National Football League (NFL) to keep Monday Night Football and ancillary NFL programming like NFL Insiders, NFL Live, and Sunday Morning Countdown on ESPN into the early 2020s at the price of $1.9 billion per year, even if it was for just 20 or 21 live games a year (Hofheimer, 2011).

For company officials, retaining the rights to the country’s most popular and most viewed sport on television was a crowning jewel (even if it costs nearly $2 billion per year) in their live sports programming inventory. One which already included college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), and the rights to numerous National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division One conference championships. At the time, keeping the NFL on ESPN reinforced ESPN’s supremacy in sports media. In hindsight, however, September 8, 2011 should be viewed as a turning point. As the rest of the 2010s unfolded, the sports media industry began changing, and ESPN with it.

The Rest of the 2010s

The world of traditional sports media, whether it be newspapers, magazines, or terrestrial and cable television, has been upended in the 2010s from a place of financial strength to one of a declining audience and rising costs. ESPN, despite still having the highest per-month subscriber rate among all national cable sports networks, has sustained multiple business setbacks and has been forced to rethink how to achieve its core mission (Gaines, 2017). While this book focuses in on the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” the ← xiii | xiv → text offers other perspectives regarding the current sports media landscape in the U.S. and abroad as other media companies face the same competitive and financial pressures.

There is no singular cause or concern that created the upheaval in the sports media industry in the 2010s: in fact, there were many. It was and still is an ever-expanding sports media universe, with hundreds of Internet sites and its plethora of sports information and opinion shows you could once find only on ESPN and SportsCenter. It was mobile media that challenged the notion of how, when, and where you could watch sports highlights and get your sports news. It was social media sites, some of which traditional media people are still trying to wrap their heads around even as we write this. It was people who became cord-cutters, making use of new ways to get their entertainment outside of having cables running into their homes. In turn, it meant fewer cable and satellite subscribers (and fewer potential viewers) for regional and national sports networks. It was technology like DVRs and trends like second-day viewing, which meant live sports rights were at an even greater premium, meaning greater costs to acquire them. It was sports teams, leagues, and conferences with insatiable financial appetites, wanting skyrocketing rights fees to continue, come hell or high water. The NFL’s expansion to a full slate of Thursday night games brought hundreds of millions of dollars for the owners, but it has also been criticized for diluting the Sunday/Monday NFL audience and diminishing the quality of the games on short weeks of rest for players (Ruiz, 2017). Traditional U.S. sports started suffering from an aging core audience while millennials showed less interest in baseball and more interest in new competitive esports and drone racing.

Technological changes are posing additional challenges for the future of regional and national cable sports networks. Part of the challenge stems from cord-cutting consumers, but the larger issue is new competition if, and when, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, or others decide to compete for sports properties, likely resulting in higher rights fees that will exacerbate problems facing traditional network and cable outlets.

It was also old problems like athletes behaving badly (e.g., performance enhancing drug use in baseball and other sports) and when players did behave in a way that demonstrated the use of their First Amendment rights (e.g., NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police treatment of African-Americans), commentary over such actions dragged sports personalities (and the networks they worked for) into the cultural and political fulcrum that engulfed the United States during the latter part of the decade. ESPN and other sports media still had issues that had been raised long before the 2010s: particularly, the near absence of female athletes on information programs like SportsCenter and, to a lesser extent, live sports events. ← xiv | xv →

As ESPN faces down its 40th anniversary in 2019, the company still has a global presence in its fifth decade, employing thousands of people all over the world. This book considers the way in which the company is once again reinventing itself (e.g., new broadcast facility in New York City, start-up of ESPN+, SportsCenter on Snapchat). In The ESPN Effect (2015), we made the observation that ESPN’s pervasiveness, delivering programs and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, influenced “how sports fans think and feel about the people who play and control these games” (Armfield & McGuire, 2015, p. xvi). This book, in a way, is asking whether that still holds true heading into the 2020s. To be clear, ESPN still has an influential (some would argue too influential) role in how sports leagues and sports media operates in the United States, but the network’s aura of invincibility circa 2011 has been chipped away by the factors stated above.

Maybe September 8, 2011, will not be remembered as well as September 7, 1979, the day ESPN launched, but it does provide a landmark in time to start our discussion. The 2010s have created such change that no one really has a grasp on what is to come in the world of sports media and where fans will find their favorite games or on what platforms they will watch them on. While it is beyond our abilities to make like “Jimmy the Greek” and prognosticate the future, this book will hopefully offer greater insight as to what has unfolded in the past decade and what is to come.

About the Volume

This endeavor explores the current and future sports media landscape at the end of the 2010s. The editors have included a deeper international perspective to shape this edition and reflect on the current media climate impacting ESPN and sports media internationally.

The chapters in this book focus on four areas of sports media. The first section examines changes and challenges in the sports media marketplace, both in the U.S. and abroad. Steve Dittemore starts the discussion with a retrospective about how the U.S. Congress has provided oversight of the American sports media industry. Aside from the governmental oversight of sports media, one cannot argue that ESPN is without question the leader in the United States. However, it has struggled to gain a stronghold in many parts of the world. David Bockino analyzes ESPN’s struggle to gain any competitive advantage against their international competition. Paul Smith then takes a closer look into the worldwide struggles ESPN has encountered with the changing European marketplace for sports media rights. One area ESPN has gained a stronghold domestically is in fantasy sports. Brody J. Ruihley and Andrew C. Billings bring us into the fantasy sports world discussion through ← xv | xvi → an examination of how ESPN continues to dominate the fantasy sports marketplace. Along with fantasy sports, the astronomical growth of esports viewing in the 2010s is well-documented. Steve Young and colleagues Sean Fourney and Braden Bagley conduct a value analysis of ESPN’s emerging esports coverage. Kevin Hull and co-authors Miles Romney and David Cassilo round out this section with their discussion of streaming sports online. Utilizing diffusion of innovations theory, the authors offer insights as to the likely success of direct-to-consumer apps like ESPN+.

The book’s second section is about changes and challenges in the sports media-political environment. This section begins with an exploration by Ryan Broussard and Jonathan Graffeo examining ESPN’s perceived double standard in handling Jemele Hill’s remarks about President Trump on Twitter compared to former ESPN baseball commentator Curt Schilling’s controversial Facebook post regarding North Carolina’s enactment of a law barring transgender individuals from using public restrooms according to their gender identity. Hill, the one-time ESPN on-air host and commentator, is the subject of two other chapters in this text: Katherine Lavelle takes us deep into an insightful analysis of public correction scholarship concerning Hill’s political tweets. David Staton further explores ESPN’s handling of Hill’s case through the use of the Potter Box. Next, J. Scott Smith examines ESPN’s crisis communication during the 2015 and 2017 company layoffs. The section concludes with the ESPN decision to eliminate the Ombudsman position with Xavier Ramon and co-authors José Luis Rojas and Andrew C. Billings look at the unique focus and role each Ombudsman has played at ESPN through the years.

The book’s third section takes on changes and challenges in the sports media programming environment. If anyone ESPN entity can summarize the past, present, and future of ESPN, including the challenges that lay ahead, it is the network’s flagship show SportsCenter. The longest-running sports highlight show still on the air in the U.S.. SportsCenter used to be one of the only places to find sports highlights. But today, social media and other media providers have altered sports fans’ reality. We no longer must wait until a set time to see highlights, as they can be delivered to you instantaneously. John McGuire opens this section of the book with an analysis of how SportsCenter has evolved to meet the demands of serving its third generation of viewers and discusses the new Snapchat format of SportsCenter. Likewise, Jake Kucek and co-authors Zach Humphries, Adam C. Earnheardt, and Greg G. Armfield explore ESPN’s dominance of the mobile app market and the technological advancements in sports media we enjoy today because of the risks ESPN assumed in their development of full, digital media platforms. ← xvi | xvii → Jared Johnson takes a different look at how ESPN has tried to leverage the changing programming environment, targeting college sports fandom with a critical examination of the Longhorn Network. Next, William M. Kunz offers an examination of one of ESPN’s primary competitors, Fox Sports, and its aggressive targeting and programming techniques during the past quarter century of local sports markets. Another area ripe for potential growth in sports media is a wider distribution of women’s sports. Anji L. Phillips and Dunja Antunovic offer a review of historical trends and propose thought-provoking directions for the growth of women’s sports. The section concludes by looking at one area where ESPN has had success with regard to women’s sports and cultural issues is with the website espnW. Sara Wolter, well-known for her research on espnW and women’s sports, provides a political economics analysis of espnW. While other ESPN forays into cultural and political arenas have experienced mixed results, espnW and its approach to covering women’s sports has experienced much success.

The fourth and final section looks at some of the specific challenges that ESPN and other sports media companies face in the changing sports media landscape. While ESPN has decided the role of Ombudsman is no longer needed at the network, Michael L. Butterworth addresses this topic and others in an insightful interview with John Walsh, former Executive Vice President of ESPN. Although Walsh refrains from prognostication in his interview, he does provide some insight into the positive future and direction of ESPN. One interesting note is his belief that ESPN will continue dominating the business of sports media, and that the media giant is not behind the times when it comes to preparing for the future of sports media delivery. Speaking of digital innovations, Melvin Lewis brings us more insight into the possible directions ESPN is headed with a short interview with Paul Melvin, Senior Director of Communications for ESPN’s Digital Media, Technology, International, and X Games groups. Melvin discusses the challenges ESPN faces in the evolving sports media landscape and the future vision of ESPN. Andreas Hebbel-Seeger and Thomas Horky then provide an exciting preview of the future of the sports viewing experience: from more overhead shots generated by drones and more first-person viewing experiences through virtual reality. While all technologies take time to emerge, we hope these don’t go the way of ESPN 3D. Finally, we close with three media industry experts: Kevin Blackistone, Galen Clavio, and Bryan Curtis. “Visualizing 2020: The Future of Sports Media” highlights a panel discussion organized by the text’s editors with the help of Galen Clavio for the International Association of Communication and Sports (IACS) 11th Summit on Communication and Sport at the University of Indiana in April 2018. ← xvii | xviii →

For those of us exploring and enjoying the sports media landscape, ESPN and other sports distributors have had a marked impact on our understanding of the field as well as our fanship. But for millennials and generations to come, these outlets may have less of a grip on those individuals than the baby boomers and GenXers. As we have seen in the 2010s, anything can happen. For researchers in the discipline of sports media, the idea that anything can happen is probably why we became sports fans.


Armfield, G. G., & McGuire, J. (2015). Preface: You’ve come a long ways baby. In J. McGuire, G. G. Armfield, & A. C. Earnheardt (Eds.), The ESPN Effect: Exploring the worldwide leader in sports (pp. xii−xviii). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Gaines, C. (2017, April 27). Cable TV customers pay more than $9 per month for ESPN networks whether they watch or not. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/cable-satellite-tv-sub-fees-espn-networks-2017-4

Hofheimer, B. (2011, September 8). ESPN launches new NFL shows, expands others. ESPN Press Room. Retrieved from https://espnpressroom.com/us/press-releases/2011/09/espn-launches-new-nfl-shows-expands-others/

Ruiz, S. (2017, January 25). 6 reasons why Roger Goodell is wrong about ‘Thursday Night Football.’ USA Today. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2017/01/roger-goodell-thursday-night-footballs-quality-good-games

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Section One

Changes and Challenges in the Sports Media Marketplace

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1. Sports Programming as a Public Good: A Complicated Congressional Legacy


On November 2, 2016, the U.S. Justice Department sued DirecTV and AT&T, Inc., alleging it orchestrated a campaign to block broad carriage of a television channel owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In its filing, the Justice Department noted “a significant number of Dodgers fans have had no opportunity in recent years to watch their team play on television because overlapping and competitive pay television providers did not telecast Dodgers games” (United States of America v. DirecTV, 2016, p. 2). While the two parties settled the case on March 23, 2017, that the government was compelled to intervene in a case which, essentially, alleged collusion to limit consumer access to watching professional baseball, is illustrative of decades of conflicting public policy legacy and rhetoric to sports programming as a public good.

The Justice Department lawsuit also speaks to the complex nature of the sports media business generally. Professional sports leagues have enjoyed a Congressionally-approved exemption to antitrust laws when negotiating broadcast rights agreements since 1961. At that time, the impact of having leagues make its contests available to consumers on free-to-air broadcast networks was unknown. Leagues initially feared free broadcasts would negatively impact game attendance. National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who led the lobbying effort in 1961, argued the exemption was necessary to prevent “open competition among its teams for broadcasting rights,” which would create an environment in which rich clubs got richer, and poor clubs got poorer (Lowe, 1995, p. 93).

A half-century later, the benefits of selling broadcast rights are numerous. Hundreds of millions of dollars trade hands annually between networks and professional sports leagues, often with the goal of increasing the amount of available content to consumers. However, that content, in many cases, now ← 3 | 4 → comes with an increased cost which is passed directly on to consumers. Or, in extreme cases such as the Dodgers example, the content is simply not made available to all consumers in a given market.

The topic of sports programming on television has warranted significant Congressional review in the past 50-plus years. On at least 20 occasions, committees or subcommittees in Congress have held hearings on the subject. A similar number of bills have been introduced in Congress since the mid-1970s. Yet for all of the talk on the part of politicians, no laws have been passed to alter the current antitrust exemptions.

This chapter will consider in more detail the exact role of Congress in regulating sports programming, particularly in light of evidence supporting increased migration from free to pay television. What emerges through a review of proposed legislation and Congressional testimony is a lot of discussion on the part of public officials, but near-zero action. Members of Congress often use local constituents as examples of individuals in need of protection, but exhibit little willingness to back up threats to revamp legislation for consumer good. In this sense, American politicians project a confusing legacy as to whether the ability to view sports programming, something they often claim is central to American culture and lifestyle, is a public good.

1961—Granting Professional Sports an Antitrust Exemption


XX, 394
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XX, 394 pp., 5 b/w ill., 13 tables

Biographical notes

Greg G. Armfield (Volume editor) John McGuire (Volume editor) Adam Earnheardt (Volume editor)

Greg G. Armfield (Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia) is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at New Mexico State University. His research explores the role of cultural identity in sports and organizations. John McGuire (Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia) is Professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. His research interests focus on the sports media business, sports announcing, and political reporting. Adam Earnheardt (Ph.D., Kent State University) is Chair and Professor of Communication Studies in the Department of Communication at Youngstown State University. His research focuses on the intersection of sports fandom, parenting, and social media.


Title: ESPN and the Changing Sports Media Landscape
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