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Changes at ESPN make clear what the Pac-12 Network must do

Kyle Kensing



Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

Before discussing the Pac-12 Conference and its cable network, it’s important to give the recent ESPN layoffs the primacy and level of emphasis they deserve.

Remembering a time when hundreds of news outlets around the world were only accessible at a newsstand might be difficult in 2017. Once the internet made publications available to anyone with a connection, the landscape changed profoundly and irrevocably — and it did so in a hurry.

The impact the internet had on publishing now encroaches on the stranglehold cable television has held over American media consumption for 30-plus years. The most jarring evidence came last week, when ESPN announced dozens of layoffs.

Among the employees released were some of the very best in sports journalism. The first and most pressing point any discussion of ESPN’s layoffs warrants is that multitudes of talented, hard-working people with families lost their jobs. Among the scores of those laid off are several journalists I consider friends.

It’s a bad case of deja vu for those who were paying attention to the newspaper industry in the early 2000s, when publications dumped wages in response to the lack of foresight shown at an administrative level. Far too many chose to give away the product for free online, not understanding how that might impact the sales for the hard-copy edition. Others struggled to monetize web-based advertising as effectively as print, an ongoing battle in the industry to this day.

In a similar vein, ESPN’s layoffs are the result of a profoundly and irrevocably changing landscape. Much as the internet made it possible to read an article from an Australian newspaper in the middle of Nebraska, it’s scratching the surface for providing TV-viewing options without a traditional cable provider.

Millions of Americans are taking advantage of this through services such as Playstation Vue, Sling TV, and others. Some former subscribers are dumping cable altogether. Cord-cutting necessitates ESPN’s cost-cutting; millions in previously guaranteed revenue dried up, making the process of fulfilling the staggering rights fees Disney agreed to with the NFL and NBA far more difficult than just a half-decade ago. Period, end of discussion.

Any suggestion otherwise is fruitless and only obfuscates the need of TV sports content providers to adjust quickly in accordance with the landscape — or risk going the way of the newspaper.

One of the major questions that needs answering in the wake of ESPN’s changes is how the shift in the landscape will affect college sports. Many of the names released last week at ESPN were college sports journalists — genuine luminaries of the industry.

Their layoffs suggest a philosophical change in the Worldwide Leader’s coverage of college football and basketball. So, too, does the nugget below, mined from Jim Miller’s podcast appearance with Richard Deitsch.

The ACC became the penultimate Power Five conference to broker its own network, doing so in partnership with ESPN, which had already partnered with the SEC in the launch of its network. The first of the major conference channels — the Big Ten’s BTN — partnered with News Corp.

Only the Pac-12 Network went it alone.

In December, I wrote in-depth about the Pac-12’s flexibility as a result of being its own provider. Conference commissioner Larry Scott has been routinely chastised for Pac-12 Network’s limited distribution in the traditional model, but I posited the channels that comprise the network were positioned for a long-term strategy.

A question I posed to Scott at last December’s Pac-12 Championship Game was the possibility of consumers purchasing the network directly and streaming through a device — no middle-man provider. This concept, applied to individual sports leagues and conferences, has intrigued me since the launch of WWE Network in 2014.

WWE became the preeminent figure for pay-per-view models in the latter half of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Launching the WWE Network — a service that airs the events previously designated for pay-per-view — was a dramatic departure from a previously successful strategy.

It faced initial growing pains, but three years since its launch, WWE Network subscriptions reached 1.41 million in the fourth quarter of 2016. There is no third-party provider splitting the revenue generated from those subscriptions, as was the case for the traditional pay-per-view model.

I didn’t pose my question about direct distribution to Larry Scott through the lens of WWE Network — somehow, I doubt the Pac-12 commissioner is a wrestling mark — but the schematics for a streaming Pac-12 Network are rooted in the same concepts.

Of the Power Five conferences, the Pac-12 Network is in the best position to follow this model immediately — and immediately is the only timetable that works.

Scott said in his address at the Pac-12 Championship Game that the plan was to be proactive rather than reactive. The dramatic changes afoot at ESPN dictate that now is the time to react, and a proactive approach to a new model is the only solution. Otherwise, conference broadcasting rights may go the way of the corner newsstand.

Kyle Kensing is a sports journalist based in Southern California. He has covered championships, bowl games, NCAA Tournaments and more for a variety of outlets during his 11 years in the field. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45