HOW ESPN HAS WEATHERED THE STORM

NO SECRET WHY ESPN PAYS NBA $1.4B PER — THE YOUNGEST FAN BASE!

By Peter Gleason

I know. I know.

The NBA playoffs this year have been boring — let’s see if you think so after the Dubs-Cavs 3!

And every member of the lame-ass local media says there is nothing like NHL playoff hockey.

But:

The NBA has never been more important to ESPN, with a new contract that pays the NBA $1.4 billion per season kicking in this year.

The media-rights contract cost ESPN and fellow NBA broadcaster Turner Sports 2.8 times as much as the previous deal, a particularly onerous thought in an era of cord-cutting and more choices than ever that has already impacted ESPN dramatically.

Still, as the NBA experiences a boom thanks to a star-power bubble and the rise of social media, its foremost TV partner has built its programming up. Those efforts includes a new show, new personalities and a new tone as ESPN runs more NBA-focused programming than ever, the combined result of contractual obligation and a desire to steer into the youngest fan base of the four major U.S. sports leagues.

The broadcast stipulations of the NBA’s new TV contract were not disclosed, but The Jump, which debuted in 2016, is one piece of a broader initiative at ESPN on the TV side to reshape its NBA coverage. Major changes to NBA Countdown, including the shift from Sage Steele to Michelle Beadle as host, coincided with changes to sets and production as well as the new NBA contract. Meanwhile, a prominent wave of layoffs cut through the company and led to rebranding and major change on the digital front.

The latest round of ESPN cuts produced a blowback rarely seen in a journalism world flooded with layoffs.

Nearly every employee to lose his or her job was a front-facing figure, a writer or TV personality with an audience of his or her own. While newspapers and TV stations frequently prefer to keep their most prominent employees — even ESPN had a previous round of cuts that hit largely editors, producers and other behind-the-scenes employees — this meant the Worldwide Leader was saying goodbye to Andy Katz, Jayson Stark and Marc Stein.

Though other areas including college sports took more substantial cuts, the NBA team lost seven reporters, Stein most prominently. But four people with knowledge of the situation reiterated to For The Win that those NBA cuts were “different.” The NBA cuts, which had little to do with the TV side of the operation, were the direct result of a bigger plan to bring in Yahoo star reporter Adrian Wojnarowski and some members of his team at The Vertical.

Their message is clear: ESPN is pulling back on other sports, but the NBA remains a priority — just in a different way than it was before.

The current iteration of Countdown started in 2008, with Stuart Scott as host before he stepped down in 2011 because of health issues. That left a six-year window whereCountdown cycled through analysts and hosts in search of a formula that worked — a formula that, even as all involved preferred not to make the comparison, couldn’t match TNT’s Inside the NBA.

There really isn’t a comparison, though. Inside functions as an extended postgame show, a late-night reverie. Countdown was a half-hour pregame show that largely stuck to the script of promoting the forthcoming game and quickly running through whatever other topics needed to be discussed. The tight format exacerbated chemistry issues, including a heavily discussed fracture between Magic Johnson, Michael Wilbon and Simmons and the shifting roles of host, depending on whether it was Wilbon, Sage Steele or Doris Burke handling the duty.

 

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