ESPN, Inc.: 2019 in Review: 40th Anniversary a Time to Reflect on the Past, Celebrate the Present and Embrace the Future

Year in Review

ESPN, Inc.: 2019 in Review: 40th Anniversary a Time to Reflect on the Past, Celebrate the Present and Embrace the Future

In 2019, ESPN celebrated 40 years of serving sports fans while also strengthening its industry leadership position by continuing its focus on four business priorities:  Direct-to-Consumer, Audience Expansion, Innovation and Quality Storytelling/Programming.  Significant steps were taken and progress achieved across the board as new offerings – on platform and off – and an entire new network debuted; key, forward-looking programming and affiliate agreements were struck; and franchise programming such as SportsCenter and Get Up engaged our passionate sports fans as seen in viewership numbers.

This year we looked back with pride, and we embraced the future thanks to the unrivaled passion and commitment of our people to what matters most – serving sports fans anytime, anywhere.  With an unparalleled rights portfolio, the best in sports journalism and exceptional storytelling across an array of assets and platforms, ESPN keeps innovating and advancing our role as the place of record in the lives of sports fans.”

–Jimmy Pitaro
ESPN President

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

 The ESPN brand is both widely popular and deeply embedded in the daily lives of sports fans in the U.S. and around the world.

  • ESPN – with a TV and digital audience that reaches as many as 212 million Americans per month (September 2019) – annually airs the great majority of cable’s most-viewed programs.  For 2019 to date (through December 16), ESPN has aired the top seven and 18 of the top 25.  In the key male demos among fulltime cable networks, ESPN has led in total day for the past 14 years and in prime time for 18 years.
  • ESPN+ climbed to 3.5 million subscribers (announced on the most recent Walt Disney Company earnings call on November 7) and added programming such as the UFC, Big 12, and NFL PrimeTime.
  • ESPN Digital is by far the world’s leading sports digital platform, averaging a new high of 128 million global users a month after September’s record of 143 million uniques (+17% year over year). 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 most popular sports app (usage up 24% through October), enjoying its best month ever in September as it and the ESPN Fantasy App each recorded all-time highs in monthly uniques (25.4 million and 10.7 million, respectively) and minutes (each with 2.8 billion). In fact, the ESPN App reached more U.S. users in September than any sports app has ever reached.  ESPN Fantasy – including football, baseball, basketball, hockey and ESPN’s highly popular Streak game – was again the leading provider of fantasy sports in 2019, with more than 20 million fans.
  • ESPN Audio includes the nation’s largest sports radio network (providing more than 9,000 hours of talk and event content annually, reaching more than 600 stations with 32 million listeners per week) and is home to half of all sports radio listenership. The podcast business set a monthly record for unique audience every month of 2019 (through November), with year-to-date growth at 18% and launched ESPN Daily.
  • 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 2019, ESPN will have presented 24,749 live events and 83,340 total live hours of studio and event programming – TV and digital combined.


ESPN+ Adds to Offerings, Climbs to 3.5 Million Subscribers

Launched in April 2018, ESPN+ is the leading direct-to-consumer sports streaming service. It grew to 3.5 million subscribers in less than 18 months (as of November 2019) by offering fans thousands of live sports events, original programming and an on demand library, along with premium editorial content. In 2019, ESPN+ continued to add new rights to the lineup, such as: UFC (more than 200 hours of live fight coverage, including exclusive access to all UFC PPV events, and 530 hours of original programs and on demand content, including Dana White Contender Series, UFC Destined, Detail: Daniel Cormier, Ariel & The Bad Guy, UFC Embedded, UFC Unleashed, Why We Fight and more); Big 12 sports via Big 12 Now on ESPN+ (including basketball, football, softball, baseball, soccer, volleyball and more); the return of the iconic NFL PrimeTime with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson; the new original series Peyton’s Places with Peyton Manning (in collaboration with NFL Films); the expansion of the in-depth analysis franchise, Detail, from Kobe Bryant’s Granity Studios, with the addition of new versions for UFC (hosted by Daniel Cormier), and College Football (with Alabama coach Nick Saban); exclusive Top Rank fights featuring Heavyweight superstar and Lineal Champion, Tyson Fury; the Copa America, one of the world’s preeminent international soccer competitions; the original series The Equalizer (with Alex Morgan), NBA Rooks, Miles To Go (with Les Miles and Kansas football), We Are LAFC, and more.  Coming in 2020 to ESPN+ is Germany’s famed Bundesliga soccer league, and hundreds of contests from the American Athletic Conference packaged in a one-stop destination, the American Digital Network.

Programming on ESPN+ also includes hundreds of MLB, NHL and CFL games; Top Rank boxing and PFL fights and events; top domestic and international soccer; thousands of college sports events from more than 20 conferences (including football, basketball, soccer, softball, baseball and other sports); Grand Slam tennis – Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open; international and domestic rugby and cricket; acclaimed studio shows; and the full library of ESPN’s award-winning 30 for 30 filmsFans can sign-up for ESPN+ individually or with Disney+ and Hulu in a bundle.

ESPN+ is available as an integrated part of the ESPN App (on mobile and connected devices) and — the industry-leading digital sports platform. ESPN+ is available via the ESPN App 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.


Efforts to expand ESPN’s audience, in particular to younger, multicultural and female audiences, include evolving both the programming of content and the way fans intersect with that content.  They also include initiatives from ESPN’s corporate citizenship department to foster fandom among young people.

Programming Lineup Evolves, Audience Grows

Throughout the year, many events and studio shows enjoyed audience increases.  Starting with the NFL Wild Card Game, other events seeing an increase this year included men’s and women’s regular-season college basketball, the women’s Final Four, all three of ESPN’s Grand Slam tennis events (Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open), the NFL Draft, the NBA Draft Lottery, the NCAA Softball Tournament, MLB Sunday Night Baseball, Formula One, WNBA, MLS, NWSL, college football and Monday Night Football.  Successes on the studio side include editions of SportsCenter (the 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. shows).  Get Up (nine straight months of growth) and FirstTake combine to lead cable in key male demos in their weekday morning time slots.  Also on the rise: College GameDay, Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown and Pardon the Interruption.

In tandem with ESPN+, the UFC debuted on ESPN in January and outperformed its audience on its former cable home and was a huge driver of streaming subscriptions, especially among a young and diverse audience.  Overall, ESPN is enhancing its combat sports portfolio, with additional exclusive marquee boxing events from Top Rank and the PFL (Professional Fighters League), which showcases MMA with a regular season, playoffs and championship format.

First-ever deals with the NWSL (soccer) and WPLL (lacrosse) bolstered ESPN’s leading slate of women’s sports, as did the ACC Network’s lineup and a larger WNBA schedule.  A renewal with Formula One will keep the series on ESPN networks for three years starting in 2020 while adding ESPN Deportes coverage in Spanish.

SEC Network celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2019, and marked the occasion with a commemorative episode of SEC Now with nearly every on-air talent who has appeared on the network.  Also, this fall SECN launched the eight-part, 12-hour docuseries Saturdays in the South: History of SEC Football, as part of ESPN’s CFB150 initiative, and added The Moment with Laura Rutledge.

Sports betting content is expanding, largely with the March debut of The Daily Wager, now seen weekdays on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. ET plus Sunday mornings in the fall.  In May, ESPN and Caesars Entertainment announced Caesars would serve as ESPN’s official odds data supplier and that Caesars would build an ESPN-branded studio at The LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where, beginning in 2020, sports betting-themed content will be created.  Also, in August the ESPNEWS screen was modified to include surrounding graphics related to sports betting news, lines and information (except during live telecasts).

ACC Network launched in August and was quickly available in 69 million homes.  Its lineup includes approximately 450 live contests, with 40 football games, 150 men’s and women’s basketball games, and 200 other regular-season competitions and tournament games from across the conference’s 27 sponsored sports, plus a complement of news and information shows and original programming.  Combined with digital platform ACCNX, coverage totals 1,350 games in the first year.

X Games continued to shine on youth-skewing social and digital media in 2019 with the Aspen and Minneapolis events experiencing double-digit growth vs. 2018 in video views across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and on – totaling more 36 million views.  On the international front, the inaugural X Games Shanghai event successfully launched in China in early June, the largest action sports competition in history in Asia.

Disney Media Distribution agreements – including continued carriage of ESPN networks and services, the launch of ACC Network, and the newly acquired FX and National Geographic networks – were finalized with Charter/Spectrum, Cox, DISH/Sling, Google/YouTube TV, Verizon/Verizon Fios, Layer3, and the NCTC. Additionally, new and continuing content distribution agreements with social platforms included Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Snap, and the soon-to-be-launched Quibi.

Throughout the year, ESPN shined a light on what makes sports great – the fans. Across many of its campaigns, ESPN made fans the hero of its spots for college football, NFL, NBA and more. Additionally, whether it was hosting on-site experiences like the ESPN House or commemorating SC Top 10 achievements from everyday athletes in their hometowns, ESPN went straight to the fans to celebrate them.  And from the power of “There’s No Place Like Sports” to the humor of “This is SportsCenter” and the music that serves as the soundtrack throughout, ESPN tapped into every emotion that sports evokes.

ESPN’s corporate citizenship department uses the power of sport to positively address society’s needs, including the decline in youth sports participation.  A leading indicator of future fandom, this trend among the fans of tomorrow is therefore important to ESPN’s business.  ESPN fosters greater access to sports by removing barriers to entry in youth sports.  This includes providing equipment, programs and places to play.  To raise awareness around this critical issue, ESPN launched the “Don’t Retire, Kid” campaign in August, which drove parents and coaches to resources to help keep kids in sports.

ESPN Finds New Ways to Reach Young Fans

ESPN’s expanding efforts to bring content to young fans finds them where they live their online lives.

  • Live shows across the ESPN App, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube include Hoop Streams (lead-in to NBA games, expanded in 2019), Rankings Reaction (discussion of the weekly college football rankings), The College Football Show with a weekly review and preview of the biggest games, the podcast Fantasy Focus Football and, new in 2019, Countdown to GameDay leading into TV’s College GameDay. 
    • Countdown to GameDay has amassed more than 20 million views in just its first season of on-location live shows each football Saturday.
  • Reaching Younger Fans is a Snap. SportsCenter on Snapchat is a daily sports news and entertainment show that reaches a daily audience of over 1.5 million unique viewers, 59% under the age of 25, and 82% under the age of 35. So far in 2019 (through November), the show has reached 28 million unique viewers who have watched over 1.1 billion minutes.
  • ESPN’s YouTube channel compiled 3.1 billion views (up 72%) and has nearly doubled time spent viewing, totaling 11.2 billion minutes (up 93%).
  • On Instagram, ESPN accounts amassed over 1.7 billion engagements and 5.3 billion video views. SportsCenter also became the most-followed show on Instagram, surpassing 15 million in December.
  • On Twitter, ESPN accounts were responsible for over 184 million engagements and 2.6 billion non-show video views. ESPN also expanded its live shows on Twitter with Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show and Fantasy Focus Football. The biggest draw was the NFL Draft with 10 million views.
  • Debuting on TikTok this year, it didn’t take long for ESPN to reach two million followers on the app, which is extremely popular among teens. ESPN is among the top five sports publishers on the platform with more than 62 million total likes to date and 380 million total views in just seven months.
  • On Facebook, ESPN accounts generated over 371 million engagements and 7.4 billion video views. ESPN also inked a deal for the addition of several Facebook Watch shows: The People’s MMA Show, Countdown To GameDay, Fantasy Focus Live, and Always Late with Katie Nolan.

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.

  • 26 and Counting! The current quarter will be the 26th 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 14 straight (since 2006) and 18 consecutive in prime time (since 2002).
  • 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 33 million Men 18-34 per month, representing 85% of all men in the age group.
  • ESPN Digital – which set a monthly record 10 consecutive months (Dec. 2018 – Sept. 2019) – is the 1 U.S. digital sports property across every key metric, as well as all key demographics, fueled by audience expansion among younger male and female fans. This includes persons 13-24 (+40% YOY), all females (+16%), men 13-24 (+32%) and men 18-34 (+16%, all through October 2019).
  • 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 year-over-year high for audience in seven consecutive months this year.
  • August 7’s third annual “ESPN8: The Ocho” reminded fans that ESPN can be bold, quirky, and poke fun at itself. This year, the stunt was a success with incredibly high social net sentiment around the event. The linear broadcast reached 31% more P12-17 than a year ago.


Storytelling is at the core of everything ESPN does, with the goal to inform, entertain and surprise.  Content is created that is “story first” and all ESPN platforms are utilized to reach sports fans at their chosen access points.

ESPN’s unrivaled commitment to enterprise journalism across TV and digital was on display once again in 2019.  Among the most prominent stories:

  • Former Olympian turned track coach Conrad Mainwaring, who after a 13-month Outside the Lines investigation was arrested and accused of molesting 41 boys over a 44-year span.
  • Why the Turkish government considers the NBA’s Enes Kanter a terrorist and won’t allow him in his homeland. The work included an interview with the president of Turkey.
  • The story of high school football coach Rob Mendez – born without arms or legs – who later received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYS.
  • ESPN broke the story that a PR executive with the Los Angeles Angels provided oxycodone to pitcher Tyler Skaggs and abused it with him for years, and that two team officials were told about Skaggs’ drug use long before his death this summer.
  • The scams often present behind Super Bowl ticket brokering.
  • An insightful profile of the enigma that is tennis star Naomi Osaka.
  • The difficulty some youth football leagues are starting to have obtaining insurance and what this could mean for the sport at higher levels.
  • The story of high school wrestler Drew Johnson, who was told by a referee to cut his dreadlocks.
  • The surprising amount of physical training required for top chess competitors.
  • ESPN covered the many aspects and ramifications of the controversy in China as the NBA began its season.

In addition, last year’s investigation into sexual harassment at Michigan State University received a Peabody Award.  Also, E:60 won two more Sports Emmys (now totaling 16 in 10 years) in the News Anthology and Short Documentary categories.

ESPN Cover Story debuted in October as a multi-platform, monthly franchise that captures what was most impactful and enduring about ESPN The Magazine’s legacy—and builds on it.  Stories include inside access, incisive reporting and bold visuals, produced in a modern, multimedia presentation that takes advantage of ESPN’s unmatched storytelling across every platform.  Each Cover Story debuts across linear, digital and social platforms including, YouTube, the ESPN app, SportsCenter, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.  The debut Cover Story on DeAndre Hopkins reached more than 6.1 million viewers across linear and generated more than three million page views across digital.

Another product of ESPN’s journalism and storytelling debuted in October – the ESPN Daily podcast.  Every weekday morning, ESPN Daily (and host Mina Kimes) takes a deep dive into a specific story in sports, using ESPN’s unmatched journalistic resources and deep roster of reporters, producers and commentators.

ESPN Films – an industry leader in documentary filmmaking since its inception in March 2008 – had a busy and successful 2019.  30 for 30 marked its 10th anniversary and was noted among “the best television of the decade” by The Hollywood Reporter.  Notable titles included Deion’s Double Play (Deion Sanders), The Good, The Bad, The Hungry (the rivalry between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest), Dennis Rodman:  For Better or Worse, and the five-part podcast series The Sterling Affairs (former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling).  Overall, ESPN Films has produced more than 100 documentaries that have showcased some of the most compelling stories in sports, and includes the Peabody and Emmy-winning 30 for 30 series, 30 for 30 Shorts, Nine for IX and the SEC Storied series, as well as the Academy-Award winning documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”

The Undefeated – which explores the intersection of sports, race and culture – launched “Year of the Black Quarterback,” a season-long series that examined the increasing number of African Americans playing the most important position in team sports. The series explored the emergence of black quarterbacks in the National Football League, their growing prominence, and their present and future impact on the league.  In addition, The Undefeated was honored with an industry-leading seven NABJ Salute to Excellence Awards at the 2019 National Association of Black Journalists’ Annual Convention & Career Fair for exemplary coverage of African-American people or issues.  Also, the platform produced and debuted during Super Bowl weekend a new rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” regarded as the black national anthem. The song and accompanying music video, shot at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and featuring Aloe Blacc and the String Queens, illustrates the wide range of content produced by The Undefeated.

espnW partnered with ESPN The Magazine on its “World Football” issue before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, featuring stories on Mal Pugh, Tobin Heath, Sam Kerr and Julie Ertz, who was on the cover and highlighted across SportsCenter and E:60.  espnW was also featured on the Mag’s “Blockbuster” issue cover with a profile of Becky Lynch and Alison Brie, spotlighting the intersection between Hollywood and sports. And, in conjunction with SC Featured, espnW had a breakout story by Elizabeth Merrill on former Villanova star Shelly Pennefather, who left her family, friends and basketball career to become a cloistered nun.

Programming with Heart Takes Many Forms

ESPN does more than spotlight the best in competition.  Like The Walt Disney Company but in the genre of sports, throughout the year ESPN has programming that benefits a cause, warms the heart, raises awareness, or does all three.

“V Week” each December and the ESPYS are ESPN’s tentpole fundraising initiatives for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, and at the ESPYS it was announced that ESPN had helped raise $100 million over the years for the organization.  Also at the ESPYS, the Pat Tillman Award for Service was given to U.S. Marine Sgt. Kirstie Ennis, who was injured on a tour in Afghanistan and has since dedicated her life to providing education and opportunity in the outdoors through the Kirstie Ennis Foundation.  In addition, the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance went to Rob Mendez, a high school football coach without arms or legs who led his team to the league championship game in his first year as head coach and inspired millions more with his determination and “who says I can’t” attitude.  Also, former NBA star Kobe Bryant gave an impassioned speech to present the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to the legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, who received the award for his dedication to fighting for social justice and his lifelong commitment to ensuring opportunity for all young people.

In February, ESPN commemorated Black History Month with an array of offerings across platforms, highlighted this year by The Black Female Athlete, a thought-provoking special examining the imagery and characterizations of black female athletes over time, their challenges and achievements. The special included a panel discussion held at Morgan State University.

July’s “My Wish” series on SportsCenter told inspiring stories as sports-related dreams of ill children are fulfilled in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  And every 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.

In addition, ESPN is a 30+-year supporter of the Special Olympics.  Coverage this year was highlighted by the World Games in Abu Dhabi in March and will continue for eight years under terms of an expanded relationship finalized in September.


The ESPN App – One-Stop Destination

The leading sports app added a number of new features in 2019 as it maintained its wide lead over the competition.

The No. 1 sports app serves as a one-stop destination for all things ESPN, which now includes select simulcasts of off-platform content, free to stream within the ESPN app. This includes:

  • Social media shows – from Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, Caffeine
  • Pre- and post-game live events – press conferences, victory parades, trophy presentations

Fans can now access ESPN content both on its platforms and off on the ESPN app – this includes:

  • Authenticated streaming – live access to ESPN nets, replay of live events and shows on ESPN3
  • Unauthenticated streaming – live access to a selection of ESPN’s off-platform content
  • ESPN+ – exclusive live events, original shows and library/archival content
  • In addition to adding value to the fan experience, this allows exploration of opportunities on the ad sales side – including impressions to this content on the platform in an ungated streaming environment.

Alternate Offerings Increasing

Providing more ways to enjoy an event via another network, ESPN3 or ESPN+ is an increasing outlet of creativity at ESPN. Beyond the ultimate example – the College Football Playoff Championship’s Megacast with 14 viewing options – numerous other events have been supplemented by alternate choices, including the NFL Draft (a full differentiated production on ABC for Rounds 1-3), Home Run Derby, NBA, college football, women’s and men’s college basketball and Grand Slam tennis.

First Forays into 4K Production

In the fall, ESPN debuted its first, live, native 4K productions with a series of college football games dubbed the “Samsung QLED 4K Game of the Week.” ESPN will also provide a 4K feed as part of the signature “Megacast” presentation of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on January 13, 2020.

Getting Closer to the Action   

In college football and on Monday Night Football, new sideline camera technology gets fans closer to the action with cameras in the first down marker (can pan and zoom) and the line-to-gain pylon.  These supplement the pylon cams at each end zone.

Making Numbers more Powerful

The Stats and Info Group (SIG) partnered with DTCI and other ESPN Content teams to bring statistical storytelling to life in new ways on Digital and linear platforms, highlighted by NFL and CFB Playoff Predictor touchscreens and visually appealing virtual executions in studio programming. Many of these integrations featured several sophisticated metrics that SIG rolled out in 2019, such as NFL Football Power Index+, automated NFL pass coverage classifications and shot grading tools for NBA and college basketball.

No Such Thing Anymore as “I missed the show

Making programming more accessible is an on-going emphasis, and more than 30 studio shows – some daily including the TV simulcasts of ESPN Radio programs, and some weekly – are available on demand via the ESPN App.  This year’s additions were select editions of SportsCenter, including the late-night show with Scott Van Pelt and the 6 p.m. ET edition, The Daily Wager, the ACC Network’s Packer and Durham and CFB 150 programming.  These join College GameDay, First Take, The Jump, Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn and many more. 

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 results are substantial – a 28% lift to average audience, including 48% among 18-34 year olds (61% in prime time).


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