ESPN, Inc.: 2016 in Review – Strong Today, Stronger Tomorrow

AnnouncementsYear in Review

ESPN, Inc.: 2016 in Review – Strong Today, Stronger Tomorrow

In 2016, ESPN remained at the forefront of the sports media industry, aggressively navigating the changing landscape with distribution across every traditional and emerging linear and digital platform and innovative techniques such as out-of-home measurement – all while continuing to thrive in every category it serves – TV, Digital, Audio and Print.

Three critical components lay at the heart of ESPN as the quintessential cross-platform media company in the U.S. and abroad:

  • ESPN’s unmatched collection of marquee sports rights include much more than merely the game action and extend into the next decade or beyond.
  • The enduring appeal of live sports is actually becoming more valuable in today’s avalanche of viewing options. In addition, such an engaged audience, not to mention one that is young, male and affluent, is very appealing to advertisers.
  • And behind it all is the unique ESPN culture – a workforce of passionate and creative people dedicated to meeting the challenges of emerging technology and evolving fan base to serve sports fans in the U.S. and around the world.

In a media world where change is constant, choices are multiplying and technology can distinguish you from the abundant competition eager to replicate our success, ESPN is clearly in the strongest position to thrive,” said John Skipper, ESPN president.  “In true ESPN fashion, we are embracing technology-based opportunities, thanks to an unparalleled collection of sports rights and our simple winning formula – marry the best in content with the most varied and creative ways to connect fans to their passion whenever they want and wherever they are.

“All the while, we continue to strengthen our efforts to diversify our workforce and enhance inclusion.  This imperative is way beyond a ‘feel-good measure.’  It is a vitally important investment in all our people and having a workforce that reflects our diverse fan base improves our business every day.”

The company is constantly looking ahead for ways to better serve fans interested in a variety of offerings with more content.  To that end, the ACC Network was announced, and its digital offerings are already available.  Also, this year’s agreement between Disney and BAMTech offer far-reaching opportunities to serve fans interested in a wide variety of sports with more content.

Digital Options and Usage Exploding

Over the past 12 months (Nov. 2015 – Oct. 2016), no sports brand in the world reached a greater number of global sports fans than ESPN Digital – an average of more than 110 million unique users a month, peaking with 136 million in September.  That kept ESPN no. 1 in sports in average minute audience, total minutes of usage and total visits, and accounted for 29% of all sports usage across digital platforms – more than the Nos. 2 and 3 sports properties combined.

WatchESPN – now housed within the industry-leading ESPN app (which broke its record with 15.6 million unique users in October) – continues to grow the meaningful incremental audience lift it adds to ESPN’s television offerings.  It averaged 8.2 million unique devices and 1.8 billion minutes per month, up 31% and 52%, respectively, from a year ago.  The first-ever Fantasy Football Marathon on TV boosted ESPN Fantasy Football to 1,753,511 teams registered, the most by far in its 20-year history.

With an eye on the importance of localization, in the last 12 months nine robust local iterations replicative of domestic were launched – ESPN Deportes, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, India, Australia, and UK), as were nine editions of the app – with more to come.  In that digital world, video is fast becoming the most valuable and differentiated asset on ESPN’s digital platforms.  With an unsurpassed rights portfolio, ESPN is best positioned to grow and monetize digital video.

A variety of initiatives to expand reach were highlighted by the debut of The Undefeated, focused on the intersection of sports, race and culture.  In addition to a thought-provoking web site, insightful forums have been conducted to discuss and debate topical issues affecting sports and race in America, including one with President Obama.  FiveThirtyEight’s popularity soared with the year’s presidential election.  The site’s election forecast was the most viewed piece of content across all ESPN digital properties in the months leading up to the election.  Overall fan engagement has never been stronger as ESPN and SportsCenter each surpassed 30 million followers on Twitter – a “30/30 Club” no other media company can match.

Sports, the Universal Language

The games may change from region to region, but the love of sports is universal.  For nearly 30 years, ESPN International has used that knowledge to grow a now robust business that includes — television, radio, print, internet, broadband, wireless, consumer products, and event management.

The 2016 Rio Olympic Games was a smashing success for ESPN International and put to good use the new production facility recently opened in Mexico City.  ESPN personnel in South and Latin America led a herculean effort to provide coverage throughout the entire region (a first) to 60 million homes in Latin America and the Caribbean, in English, Portuguese and Spanish and news reporting to the U.S. and around the world.  Overall, ESPN presented more 2,800 hours of Rio 2016 content across its platforms.  Locally, the ratings were a smashing success, often in competition with other broadcasters delivering the same Games.  ESPN was the highest-rated Pay TV Olympic broadcaster in Mexico and Central America.

Meanwhile, in India Sony ESPN-branded channels were launched, as was a co-branded digital site and app.  An innovative multi-year deal with one of China’s most innovative companies, Tencent, for ESPN content and an ESPN-branded section on their portal has enormous potential.  In sub-Saharan Africa, a long-term agreement with Econet will see an ESPN channel distributed in 19 more countries starting in early 2017 and a new co-branded edition of and the ESPN app for Africa by mid-year.

U.S. Television – Compelling Content, Expanding Distribution Paths

In sports, often near the end of a game, the winning team’s fans will chant “Score-board” to boast their win.  In television, the scoreboard is ratings.  For 2016 to date and in total day and prime time, ESPN ranks as the highest-rated full-time cable network among Men and Adults 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.  In prime, ESPN ranked second among total viewers – after being number one the last two years for the first time ever – behind Fox News which benefited from the tremendous attention for the election.

When stacked up against other cable sports nets, the ESPN advantage is stark.  This year ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU are averaging 42% more viewers than the next eight most-watched English-language cable sports networks combined (1.095 million viewers vs. 0.733).

ESPN’s industry-renowned research department is mining the untapped value of fans watching sports in public establishments.  This out-of-home viewing is now beginning to be measured, and sold to advertisers.

In 2016, ESPN continued to lead the industry in navigating the changing marketplace by embracing new offerings and enhancing the viewing experience across platforms. This year ESPN launched its networks with new digital distribution partners, including PlayStation Vue and DIRECTV NOW, and announced an upcoming launch with Hulu, joining Sling TV in the growing category. Surveys of cable operators by Beta Research Corp. ranked ESPN and ESPN2 the top two major ad-supported cable nets in perceived value.  ESPN was best for the 16th consecutive year, and Disney/ESPN Media Networks was the no. 1 organization most helpful in driving VOD or SVOD efforts, providing new online content delivery options, TV Everywhere efforts in providing programs on multi-platforms such as tablets/smartphones, and high-definition programming.

The content delivered through those various pipelines is simply the best in the industry.  In fact, ESPN has delivered five of the 10 most-watched cable telecasts in 2016 so far, including the top three.  From the New Year’s Six Bowl Games (culminating a schedule of nearly three dozen bowl games), the College Football Championship and NFL Wild Card Game in January, a winter full of top college basketball conferences peaking with Championship Week for the men and the entire NCAA Women’s Tournament, the Indy 500, NBA schedule expanded beginning 2016-17 (just as the league is hotter than ever, coming off the most-watched final in nearly 20 with Game Seven on ABC the biggest NBA audience in the same span), MLB all summer and a Wild Card Game, the WNBA including the Finals, the Little League World Series, a fall of football – college and NFL – and throughout the year other marquee events stand out:  the Masters, both College World Series, three of tennis’ Major events with TV exclusivity at Wimbledon and the US Open, MLS and key international soccer matches, and numerous NCAA Championships in Olympic sports.  Many of those are on ESPNU, SEC Network and Longhorn Network, all of which carried more live programming than the year before, including a new high for the SEC Network.

Events are surrounded by the best studio programming in sports, with SportsCenter – the standard for the sports news program since its 1979 debut – as the backbone.  Always evolving, the creation of more personality-based editions continues in the wake of Scott Van Pelt’s midnight ET show which competes strongly against all late-night shows among the key young male demo.  In 2016, a more “morning TV” version launched at 7 a.m. and the one-hour Face to Face edition with Hannah Storm emphasized interviews with newsmakers.  In early 2017, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill of His & Hers will assume host roles for the weekday 6 p.m. edition.  With smart and compelling hosts, opinion-based shows also perform well, and First Take will move from ESPN2 to ESPN in January.

Drilling down on sports, issues and personalities, ESPN offers numerous sport-specific shows including NFL, NBA, college football and baseball, often on-site for major events.  The award-winning Outside the Lines with Bob Ley maintains is position as the leader in TV sports journalism and E:60 in compelling storytelling.

Storytelling is also the trademark of ESPN Films, notably “30 for 30” and this year’s expansive “O.J.:  Made in America.”  The five-part, 7.5-hour (without commercials, as seen in theatres) epic from esteemed director Ezra Edelman was met with universal acclaim.  “O.J.” has already won 15 awards (with Oscar and Emmy consideration to come), highlighted by being named Best Documentary by The Gotham Independent Awards, Critic’s Choice Documentary Awards, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle.

In addition, Nación ESPN debuted on ESPN2, the first program on an English-language ESPN network targeted to Hispanics.  The interactive sports talk show covers the most relevant and diverse sports news and information tailored to young, bilingual U.S. Hispanic sports fans.  The one-hour show is produced each Monday from ESPN’s Los Angeles production facility.

While the quality is unsurpassed, it is all the more impressive when seen against the backdrop of the quantity:  In 2016, ESPN will present 49,000 hours of event coverage in the U.S., with 15,000 more from the studio – TV and digital combined.

Reaching Fans in All Ways, at All Times

There are, of course, many more “ESPNs” than those mentioned above to connect with sports fans.

ESPN Radio – the nation’s largest sports radio network – reaches more than 20 million listeners per week on nearly 500 affiliates.  In Chicago, the ESPN-owned station inked a deal for all Notre Dame football and men’s basketball games while ESPN LA added the Rams to a roster than includes the Lakers, USC football and basketball and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Mike & Mike hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic were inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Broadcasting Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of legendary radio voices including Harry Caray, Paul Harvey, Vin Scully and Bob Uecker.

ESPN Podcasts set usage records almost every month, paced by FiveThirtyEight and Fantasy Focus Football.  The first long-form offering, the five-part Dunkumentaries was named Podcast of the Year by RAIN (all topics, not restricted to sports).  In one of ESPN’s most ambitious storytelling initiatives ever, the multiplatform Pin Kings had an ESPN Audio first – an episodic presentation of 16 chapters.  Television, print, digital and audio offerings all told the same story in formats that fit the specific audiences of each platform.

ESPN The Magazine is the top publication in total reach (print and digital) among men 18-34 (6.9 million readers), which is 25% higher than any other publication and up 10% over a year ago.  Overall, the reach is 18.4 million, up 12% vs. 2015.  The year was also notable for the appointment of Alison Overholt as editor-in-chief, the first female to hold that title at a national sports magazine.  Four pieces were selected in “Best American Sports Writing.”

For Spanish-speaking fans in the U.S., ESPN Deportes aired the Super Bowl for the first time and reached an audience 51% bigger than the 2015 Spanish-language telecast; it was its most-watched telecast ever, outside of soccer.  Twice in the year ESPN Deportes broke its own viewership record – first for the UEFA Champions League final in May and then the UEFA European Championship final in July (1.3 million Hispanic viewers).  The Hispanic brand also continued delivering digital growth on WatchESPN with an increase of more than 66% in total minutes.  Of its top 10 most-watched offerings ever on Watch, eight were this year.  Growth also included social media where there was an increase of more than 110% on Instagram and 14% on Facebook.

espnW increased its presence across ESPN platforms, especially as the line blurs between sports and important – and often sensitive – topics in the news and society, with voices such as SportsCenter’s Cari Champion (via her espnW podcast Be Honest), writer/reporters Kate Fagan, Jane McManus, Sarah Spain and others added to the conversation.  Localized digital presence in Australia and Brazil were espnW’s first initiatives off U.S. shores.

ESPN also owns some of the events it televises, providing tremendous marketing opportunities.  In addition to the ESPYs and X Games – Summer in Austin before moving to Minneapolis in 2017 and Winter in Aspen, Col., for a 15th year – through ESPN Events the company operates nearly 30 events, highlighted by 13 college bowl games and 11 college basketball events.  New for 2016:  the first annual Camping World Kickoff in Orlando on  Labor Day Weekend – Florida State vs. Ole Miss.



Dave Nagle

As I write this on 11-11-21, it's now 35 years for me at ESPN, the only real job I’ve ever had. I joined merely to help with the upcoming America’s Cup in Australia. I was told it would be for three months at all of $5.50 per hour. I like to say I simply kept showing up. I’ve worked on almost every sport, plus answered viewer calls and letters (people used to write!), given tours, written the company newsletter and once drove NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon to the local airport. My travels have been varied…I’ve been to Martinsville, Darlington, Indy and Super Bowls; the America’s Cup (all 3) in San Diego and College GameDay in the sport’s meccas such as Eugene, Auburn, Lubbock, Stillwater and more; the NBA Finals, Wimbledon (16 times and counting) and the “other Bristol,” the one with a race track in Tennessee. These days, my main areas are tennis, UFC, boxing, network-wide ratings (by month/quarter/year), and corporate communications documents, including fact sheets, chronologies, lists and nearly 35 of the Year in Review press releases. UPDATE EXACTLY ONE YEAR LATER: Today, November 11, 2022, I am retiring from ESPN -- 36 years to the day I began. As I ride off into the sunset – top down and E Street Radio blaring – I do so with so many wonderful memories, proud of my contributions and a heart full of gratitude for the opportunity. 
Back to top button