ESPN, Inc.: 2018 in Review – Launch of ESPN+ Marks Year of Innovation, Storytelling and Audience Expansion


ESPN, Inc.: 2018 in Review – Launch of ESPN+ Marks Year of Innovation, Storytelling and Audience Expansion

In 2018, ESPN has continued to lead sports media with its core businesses and built a strong, innovative path forward to effectively address the evolving sports appetites of a wide variety of sports fans.  New President Jimmy Pitaro and the leadership team have identified and consistently communicated four business priorities – Innovation, Storytelling and Programming, Audience Expansion and Direct-to-Consumer – to keep ESPN poised for future success.  All four priorities are manifest in the year’s primary highlight, the successful debut of a new era of distributing live sports and original programming directly to consumers via ESPN+ — the streaming service launched in April by The Walt Disney Company’s newly-formed Direct-to-Consumer and International (DTCI) group and ESPN.

“For nearly four decades ESPN has held an essential place in the lives of sports fans, with the best rights portfolio, storytelling and technology, along with scale unparalleled in sports media,” said Pitaro.  “I have been a long-time fan of ESPN, and now I’m proud to be part of this organization with its passionate culture focused on innovation, storytelling, expanding our audience and the company’s direct-to-consumer business.  I love where we are and where we are going.” 

The Place of Record for Sports Fans — The Numbers Speak for Themselves 

The ESPN brand is both widely popular and deeply embedded in many ways in the daily lives of sports fans.

  • ESPN – with a TV and digital audience that nears 100 million Americans per month – annually airs the great majority of cable’s most-viewed programs. For 2018 to date, ESPN has aired the top six and 17 of the top 20.   Ratings increases and multi-year highs were set throughout the year, from the College Football Playoff, NCAA basketball and NBA last winter to Wimbledon, WNBA, Little League, tennis’ US Open and X Games in the summer to Monday Night Football and college football this fall.
  • ESPN+ reached one million subscribers in under six months.
  • ESPN Digital is by far the world’s leading sports digital platform, averaging 115 million users a month. ESPN is No. 1 in sports in average minute audience, total minutes of usage and total visits. The ESPN mobile app continued its position as the No. 1 most popular sports app, enjoying its best month ever in September and again in October with visitors up 19% and minutes used up 21%. ESPN Fantasy – including football, baseball, basketball, hockey and ESPN’s highly popular Streak game – was again the No. 1 provider of fantasy sports in 2018, with more than 20 million fans.
  • ESPN Radio is the nation’s largest sports radio network (on more than 600 stations with 32 million listeners per week) and is home to half of all sports radio listenership. The podcast business broke its record for most successful month three times, and year-to-date downloads are up 55% (through October).
  • ESPN The Magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of “The Body Issue,” won numerous awards and has more than 100 million readers across print, desktop and mobile, the largest cross-platform audience of any magazine brand.
  • The ESPN brand reaches every continent across television, radio, print, Internet, broadband, wireless, consumer products and event management.
  • Quality and Quantity: While the quality of ESPN’s productions is unsurpassed, it is all the more impressive when seen against the backdrop of the quantity:  In the fiscal year that ended September 30, ESPN presented 23,542 live events and 64,056 total live hours of studio and event programming – TV and digital combined.



 ESPN+ Debuts with Near Limitless Variety of Content – Live Events, Original Programming

In April, the new ESPN App launched with a completely re-imagined experience that includes the seamless integration of ESPN+, the first-ever multi-sport, direct-to-consumer premium subscription streaming service from The Walt Disney Company’s Direct-to-Consumer and International group and ESPN.  In under six months, ESPN+ had reached one million subscribers.  It is now available across a wide array of connected devices, including Amazon Fire devices (TV, Stick, smart TVs, Tablets); Apple (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV); Android (phones, Android TV, Chromecast); Oculus, PlayStation 4, Roku devices and Xbox One.

The robust lineup of sports programming on ESPN+ gives subscribers approximately 10,000 live games and events a year.  This includes season-long coverage of MLB, NHL, CFL and the NBA’s G League; a vast selection of international and domestic soccer including Italy’s Serie A, the Emirates FA Cup, UEFA Nations League, Major League Soccer, the Dutch Eredivise, Carabao Cup, the USL and more; Grand Slam tennis from the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open; an extensive lineup of Top Rank boxing, including exclusive world title fights; and an extensive variety of college sports from more than 15 conferences – including football, basketball, soccer, softball, baseball and more. A highly anticipated and exclusive slate of UFC cards joins the lineup in January 2019.

ESPN+ also offers on-demand original programming including ground-breaking programs with some of the biggest names in sports. In Detail, which debuted to much critical acclaim, NBA legend Kobe Bryant breaks down game film focusing on a specific critical matchup or player.  An NFL version with Peyton Manning followed and an edition focused on UFC is forthcoming.  In Earn Everything, ESPN+ takes viewers inside the Duke Men’s Basketball program, with behind the scenes access to Coach K, Zion Williamson, RJ Barret and the rest of the powerhouse team. Working with UNINTERRUPTED – the award-winning digital media company founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter – ESPN+ recently debuted More Than an Athlete, focusing on James’ expanding business and media interests. Additionally, ESPN+ is the exclusive home of the entire 30 for 30 films library (more than 100 films) and sport-specific studio programs such as ESPN FC (international soccer) and In the Crease (NHL), with new episodes daily.



Efforts to expand ESPN’s audience include evolving both the programming content and the way fans intersect with that content.

Programming Lineup Evolves

This year was highlighted by an extensive expansion of Top Rank Boxing, the return of Formula One and the addition of the Ivy League (plus greatly expanded longtime agreements with several other conferences announced this year:  Atlantic 10, Big South, Conference USA, MAC, Ohio Valley and Sun Belt) as well as a wide array of top international soccer for ESPN+, led by Italy’s Serie A and the Emirates FA Cup.  The studio show lineup was enhanced with the addition of Get Up! and High Noon and the return of the 7 a.m. ET and noon editions of SportsCenter.  In addition, ESPN’s forays into esports (highlighted by the start of a multiyear agreement with the Overwatch League), gaming content and films/documentaries all help expand the audience.

Two major additions to the programming portfolio are on tap for 2019 with a major package of UFC content and The ACC Network launching on August 22.

ESPN Finds New Ways to Reach Young Fans

ESPN’s efforts to bring content to young fans has greatly expanded to find them where they live their online lives.

  • Reaching Younger Fans is a Snap. SportsCenter on Snap, short episodes produced each morning, increase ESPN’s reach for fans 18-24 by 33% over TV alone (50% for males 18-24) with a daily audience of 2.5 million and 17 million per month.  In addition, 71% of its viewers do not consume any ESPN linear offerings.  In September it was joined by College GameDay on Snap, and now there is also ESPN Daily on Snap, a rotation of five shows each presented one weekday per week – First Take, Get Up!, The Jump, High Noon and The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz.
  • The audience of ESPN’s YouTube channel is 40 million uniques per month and 31% are under 25. In the last six months, time spent viewing is up 78% vs. 2017.
  • On Instagram, the ESPN and SportsCenter accounts combined to grow followers 25% to a total of 25 million. Meanwhile, engagement/post grew even more, 57%.
  • This year, ESPN debuted live shows on Twitter with plans to double the offerings in 2019, including Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show and Fantasy Focus Football. The biggest draw was the NFL Draft with three million views.
  • On Facebook, across the ESPN and SportsCenter pages, engagements are up 48% year-over-year while on Twitter the increase is 32%.


How to Find Young Men with ESPN’s Platforms 

ESPN remained cable’s best option for advertisers seeking the important and hard-to-reach young male viewer, despite the ever-increasing growth in video options and competition.

  • 22 and Counting! The current quarter will be the 22nd consecutive in which ESPN has been the No. 1 full-time cable network among Men18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 (starting in Q3 2013).  Looking at the streak in terms of years, ESPN has been No. 1 for 13 straight (since 2006).
  • ESPN2 is right behind ESPN among cable sports networks among M18-34; it has been #2 every year since its 1993 launch.
  • Across its platforms, ESPN reaches as many as 28 million Men 18-34 per month, representing 73% of all men in the age group.
  • Late Night Sports > Late Night Laughs The weekday midnight ET SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt generates higher ratings among 18-34-year-old men than the late-night talk shows on broadcast or cable.
  • First Take, First in its Time Slot First Take consistently leads cable in its time slot (10 a.m. – noon) in delivery of men 18-34. Overall, the show set a new high for audience four different months this year.



ESPN’s unrivaled commitment to enterprise journalism on TV, online and in print – and often in cross-platform complementary efforts – led to many awards for SC Featured (including a Sports Emmy, a Murrow Award, a Gracie Award and a NAMIC Award), E:60 (two Sports Emmys, now totaling 14 in nine years) and College GameDay, which not only was named the Sports Emmys’ top weekly studio show for the fifth consecutive year (and eighth time overall) but was honored in the Short Feature category.

ESPN Films was a featured part of the ESPN+ launch in April, with the full 30 for 30 library of films available, and the premiere of the 30 for 30 documentary, “The Last Days of Knight” about Indiana coach Bobby Knight. It was a big year for the group behind 30 for 30 Podcasts. The team’s widely acclaimed third season, 30 for 30 Podcasts: Bikram, won the 2018 Cablefax Award for Mobile/Online & Short Form in the Podcast / Videocast category.  ESPN Films also released the unprecedented 20-hour, 10-part film “Basketball: A Love Story.”  The sweeping project consists of more than 60 interconnected “short stories” creating a vibrant mosaic of the game.

espnW partnered with ESPN The Magazine on its “Gold Rush” issue before the Winter Olympics featuring Chloe Kim on the cover, which was highlighted across SportsCenter, SC Featured and E:60. In conjunction with The 2018 ESPYS, espnW was again on the cover with a profile on Aly Raisman. Following The ESPYS, E:60’s Tisha Thompson moderated a roundtable discussion with five Sister Survivors that debuted on and later aired as a prime-time special on ESPN2.

Programming with Heart Takes Many Forms

Like The Walt Disney Company but in the genre of sports, ESPN does more than spotlight the best in competition; throughout the year there is programming that benefits a cause, warms the heart, raises awareness, or does all three.  “V Week” each December and The ESPYS in July have each raised millions for The V Foundation for Cancer Research; the latter’s dramatic conclusion saw 141 “sister survivors” from the U.S. Gymnastics program jointly accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.   Each November, a variety of programs pay homage to those in the armed forces for Veterans Day as studio shows go on the road and games are held at armed forces outposts and bases around the nation and world; and the “My Wish” series on SportsCenter each year tells inspiring stories as sports-related dreams of ill children are fulfilled in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

In addition, ESPN is a long-time supporter of the Special Olympics, and coverage has included the USA Games in Seattle this summer with the World Games in Abu Dhabi next March and an on-going series of shorts, Special Olympics:  50 Game Changers.  There’s also SportsCenter’s extended on-site coverage of the Warrior Games.  This past February, ESPN’s annual Black History Month programming included Dear Black Athlete, a series of conversations featuring prominent African American athletes and civic leaders, in conjunction with companion content on The Undefeated and ESPN The Magazine.  Also, many of the features on E:60, SC Featured and other studio shows tell inspirational stories from around the world that may warm – or break – your heart.



U.S. Television – Getting a Big Lift from Streaming and Those Out of Home

ESPN led the industry to adopt evolutionary measurement practices to determine ad rates, combining TV and streaming and including out-of-home viewing.  The recent typical results are substantial – a 18% lift to average audience, including 33% among millennials (42% in prime time).

The Re-Imagined ESPN App – the All-In-One Digital Sports Platform

When the ESPN App relaunched in April, in addition to the debut of ESPN+ it offered a completely re-imagined experience. Already the leading sports app in the industry at the time, it became an all-in-one digital sports platform – giving fans one access point for all that ESPN offers:  news, scores and analysis; ad-supported short video and highlights; direct-to-consumer streaming; TV Everywhere streaming and industry-leading audio (both live radio and podcasts). With enhanced design, personalization and mobility in mind, the new ESPN app and ESPN+ are available across all major mobile and connected living room devices — with an optimized experience for each platform.

New Looks Enhance Programming

This fall, Around the Horn debuted a new look, introducing augmented reality as well as new graphics and animations, a new logo and color palette and a fresh musical theme. In addition, host Tony Reali is now based at ESPN’s New York Seaport District Studios.  The three-dimensional studio environment results in a completely reimagined interaction between Reali and the four daily panelists as their images appear in-studio with Reali and can be enlarged, shrunk, moved, isolated and more.

When High Noon debuted this year – also from the new-in-2018 Seaport Studio – the desire for a distinct and more cinematic look led to shooting the show in widescreen at 24 frames per second (not the usual 30 or 60), double the usual four cameras for a studio show, a Western-but-modern movie-style theme song and the use of windowpanes to present multiple images simultaneously, including hosts Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre listening as the other speaks.

In addition to Around the Horn and High Noon, the Seaport Studio is now home to Get Up!, First Take, Jalen & Jacoby, The Stephen A. Smith Show, Always Late with Katie Nolan and more.

Statcast Alternate Offerings

ESPN produced two Statcast-driven alternative viewing experiences during pillar events on the Major League Baseball calendar – the T-Mobile Home Run Derby and the National League Wild Card Game. The latter, which featured the broadcast team of Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez and MLB Statcast expert Mike Petriello, received widespread praise from fans and media. Sports Illustrated awarded it “best broadcast innovation” in 2018.

College Platforms Expand Footprint

This year, ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network+ were added to Xfinity X1 with Comcast.  Just as with a similar addition to DIRECTV in 2016, these rollouts are important as a hybrid linear and streaming video viewing experience in a simple and seamless user interface.  The result delivers greater value to the customer’s pay TV subscriptions.

No Such Thing Anymore as “I missed the show

Making programming more accessible is an on-going emphasis, and more than 25 studio shows – some daily including the TV simulcasts of ESPN Radio programs, some weekly – are available on demand via the ESPN App.  This year, Get Up, High Noon and Highly Questionable were added to the offerings, which include College GameDay, First Take, The Jump, Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn. 





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. 
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