ESPN has long been a top player in sports media, with its signature "SportsCenter" news program at the center of that success, and profits, too.
But the giant sports network is being forced to re-evaluate its path, as a younger generation's real-time digital habits are reshaping the sports media landscape. And it looks like ESPN may be starting with "SportsCenter."
The company is expected to lay off up to 300 people over the next few months, according to The Big Lead citing multiple sources. It attributed the moves to parent company Disney asking the sports network to cut $100 million from its 2016 budget and $250 million in 2017. The Big Lead's sources said ESPN will cut the show's airtime in half and will drop its afternoon live show.
In a statement to CNBC, the network said: "ESPN has historically embraced evolving technology to smartly navigate our business. Any organizational changes will be announced directly to our employees if and when appropriate."
"I don't know if the average consumer is now buying (consuming) in 30-minute or one-hour blocks," said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University. "All of the day-parts concept is under attack. It's not only under attack in ESPN, but it's under attack at ABC, CBS, NBC. People now watch when they want to watch, and they will take it in shorter and shorter segments or blasts, and there are many more options."
For those reasons, "SportsCenter" is no longer a must-see for a whole new generation of impatient fans who are increasingly turning to sites like Bleacher Report and SB Nation to get their news fix, rather than wait on a TV show. Consider Perform Media, which owns sites like Sporting News and Goal.com and opened U.S. operations in 2010. The company says four years later, its audience was upward of 41 million unique visitors. In the past year, Vox Media's SB Nation has grown its unique users by more than 48 percent year over year.
That kind of growth in sports digital media may be threatening ESPN's market share. Sources who have seen Nielsen data say that there are 3.2 million fewer homes with access to ESPN TV properties year to date.
Part of the blame can be placed on cord cutters, who are opting into over-the-top viewing options and custom content streaming packages instead of a monthly cable bill. Subscribers pay about $6 per month out of their monthly fees to ESPN. At the same time, broadcast sports rights prices are at an all-time high—and to remain on top, ESPN needs to foot the bill to be able to show NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and more on TV.