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ESPN’s Future; ESPN Radio; NBA’s History: Media Mailbag

Another great week of questions for the OutKick Media Mailbag. Thanks to all the readers who sent in.

Here we go:

“Mailbag Question: Jim Cramer suggested ESPN may be ‘spun off’ or sold. Do you think this is likely and if so, what are some possible buyers? AT&T and Verizon are two names that come to mind.”

Like many, this was the first time I heard this mentioned. I think it’s much more likely FOX (excluding Fox News Media) and CBS are purchased by Apple or Amazon.

In August, Apple became the first U.S. company to reach a $2 trillion market cap. Amazon is around $1.7 trillion. FOX and CBS sit at $21 billion and $16.5 billion, respectively.

Cramer is right on ESPN in many ways. ESPN is not integral to sports anymore, the pandemic crushed it, layoffs are expected soon, and it’s expensive to run.

However, Cramer overlooked how much ESPN fits the new direction Disney is taking. Media sources agree that ESPN’s focus moving forward is ESPN+. With its three OTT services, ESPN+, Disney+ and Hulu, Disney is positioned for a long, industry-changing run.

Over the next three years, expect to see more and more content on ESPN+, including live games, bumper programming, niche content, and highlights of ESPN.com.

I’ve been critical of ESPN and its future. But I’m referring to its daily TV and radio programming. Both of which are in trouble.

ESPN has done a poor job of building out its bench, relies too much on Stephen A. Smith, and has no one under 40 who moves ratings. There will not be another PTI or Stephen A. on TV, and a new Mike & Mike is not coming to radio. For individual talents at ESPN, the network peaked years ago.

As a company, the ESPN brand is fine. Live sports project to be an even bigger part of ESPN’s library. In a few years, ESPN/ABC could add the SEC game of the week, a Super Bowl, and the NHL.

As for ESPN+, the UFC and Disney+/Hulu bundle have elevated the service to 8.5 million paid subscribers as of June 27.

All in all, ESPN’s future is positive for sports leagues, studio hosts, in-game reporters, and play-by-play commentators. It’s negative for day-to-day personalities.

“ESPN Radio dominates the local sports radio affiliate market. But considering their shows have changed drastically since 2015, including being more woke and liberal, if you were a Program Director or GM of your local ESPN Radio would you consider a programming change to Fox Sports or CBS Sports programs?

“The ESPN Radio national shows have dropped off massively.”

The first reaction to a poor national lineup isn’t to switch to a competing radio network. Instead, stations go local in more time slots. This occurred when Dan Le Batard took over for Colin Cowherd and when Bomani Jones moved to the p.m. drive slot. Affiliates respond to low ratings by airing more local content.

There’s no question ESPN’s national radio lineup has gotten weaker. The current lineup is bad. Mike Greenberg’s show is great, but one show doesn’t cover up a day’s worth of off-putting content.

The morning show is a dud. Jay Williams doesn’t fit. Keyshawn Johnson and Zubin Mehenti don’t click. The Le Batard Show is a disaster on terrestrial radio. Max Kellerman is strong but political. Chiney and Golic Jr. gets political and doesn’t focus enough on football games, which drive sports-talk radio. Lastly, Jason Fitz has helped the evening show, but Sarah Spain’s radio struggles continue.

Radio listeners prefer local shows anyway. Why wouldn’t they? If you are driving around in Pittsburgh, three hours of Steelers talk is more appealing than an hour of LeBron vs. Jordan.

That said, there are national shows that work in big markets. Such as Kellerman in Los Angeles, where he previously hosted p.m. drive.

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Yes, ESPN Radio has opened the door for Fox Sports Radio to move into more vehicles. CBS Sports Radio’s national shows do not draw a lot interest, although Jim Rome still has a passionate base.

“Will we ever see an NBA game get higher viewers than Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals?”

Very unlikely another NBA Finals game reaches 36 million viewers. Very.

To show how far the NBA has fallen since going Rachel Maddow, Game 7 in 2016 drew 31 million. That’s just four years ago. No game this season even reached nine million.

Four years ago, I would have said it had a 30% chance of happening. Today, I give it 3%.

The NBA is in a world of trouble. LeBron-led Finals games are now losing to LCS baseball games. Game 1 of the World Series tanked and still crushed the NBA Finals.

Remember, the 1998 Finals series averaged 29 million. It’s up in the air if another Finals can get back above 20 million.

1998 has nothing to worry about.

Follow Bobby Burack on Twitter at @burackbobby_.

Disclosure: OutKick founder Clay Travis is an on-air personality at Fox Sports Radio.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

3 Comments

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  1. Concerning the local radio listener I prefer good national shows and hosts such as Chris Russo or Clay over the non-stop often repeated Steeler discussion locally. There seem to be fewer and fewer good national hosts on over the air radio. I wish I could go back to the days of Tony Kornheiser, Steve Czaban and Mike and Mike.

  2. ESPN talent level is a dumpster fire. SVP, Wilbon, aging Kornheiser, aging Woody, Shefter, Cosell-copycat S.A. Smith if you can take the rants, and talented & whiny metro Greeny. That’s it folks. It’s over.

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