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ESPN Continues To Struggle As Spectators Cut The Cord On Cable


There's some news about sports news we want to talk more about. For years, ESPN has been the big name in sports broadcasting showing live events, reporting news, hosting talk shows about sports, airing documentaries about sports. But the network has also been making news itself for losing millions of subscribers in recent years and in the wake of that, losing hundreds of staff.

Last week, there was another layoff - some 100 employees were let go, including well-known names who covered the NFL and college hoops and so on. We were wondering why this is happening and why it matters, so we called Max Chafin. He's a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. He's been writing about all this. We reached him in Vancouver where he's attending the TED conference. Max, thanks so much for taking time out of the conference to talk with us.

MAX CHAFKIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So last week's layoffs are just the latest. There was a massive layoff in 2015 like some 300 staffers were let go. Why is this round of layoffs getting so much attention? And why is all this happening?

CHAFKIN: So the reason this is getting attention is because these are in some cases well-known names. These are people who were on-air talent - combination of people who are on Sports Center which is ESPN's kind of signature sports highlights show - it's actually the first show that ever aired on ESPN - and you have some sort of beat reporter.

So these are people that fans know about, and the other reason that this is getting attention is because it's part of this long-running story that we've been seeing playing out over the last few years where ESPN which for a time was probably the most powerful entity in all of sports and maybe arguably the most powerful entity in all of media has now been suddenly laid low by what's known in the industry as cord-cutting which is to say people who are deciding not to subscribe to cable anymore which cuts directly to their bottom line.

MARTIN: ESPN obviously is kind of pushing back against this idea that the network has been kind of knocked off its lofty perch, for example, you know, Scott Van Pelt, one of their big stars has been very vocal about this. He says that there really is no near competitor. They still are making billions of dollars, and they have like hundreds of thousands of subscribers and still get more per subscriber than any other entity. So what's the big deal?

CHAFKIN: That's all true. I mean, ESPN is one of those businesses that is like so good it should be, you know, illegal. They don't just get more money per subscriber than anybody else, they get, I think, more than double anybody else. So the thing that is a little bit troubling is the trend. And ESPN has been dealing with these subscriber losses in recent months that are historically enormous - losing more than half a million subscribers in a single month.

And the other thing that's happening to them is that their costs have gone up a lot in recent years, so a single Monday night football game - just the rights to show Monday night football on a single night costs more than, like, an entire season of "Game Of Thrones." So they're in this kind of box where on one hand, their costs are going up and their revenues are not going up as much as they're accustomed to. And so that's putting them in this position where they have to start cutting.

MARTIN: So, Max, before we let you go, there are some who might be listening to our conversation and say why do I care about that? And what would you say?

CHAFKIN: That's kind of a good point. But I do think that the thought of ESPN being diminished or sports in our culture being diminished would be unfortunate. I mean, it's a big part of how a lot of us go through our lives and understand things about the world and things about ourselves and go through these wild, emotional swings. And if that were to all go away, I mean, that would be really sad.

And the other thing is probably worth saying is that ESPN does do some amazing journalism. The O.J. documentary "O.J.: Made In America" won an Academy Award and was obviously about this running back who'd ran a lot of yards, but it also kind of gave you this story of race in Los Angeles. That was new to a lot of people and was important. So I think if they were to go away would be very unfortunate.

MARTIN: That was Bloomberg reporter Max Chafkin He was kind enough to speak to us from Vancouver where he's attending the TED conference. Max Chafkin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHAFKIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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