How Legal Sports Betting Could Reverse ESPN’s 6-Year Ratings Decline
Ross Gerber, the CEO of Gerber Kawasaki, wrote an opinion piece in Forbes Magazine recently which suggested legalized sports betting could help ESPN regain its viewership. ESPN has lost 11 million viewers since 2011.
Before explaining how ESPN could benefit from mainstream sports gambling in dozens of states, Gerber speculated on the reason ESPN has lost viewers in the past few years. He also discussed a variety of reasons why legal sports betting could happen in a remarkably short period of time.
Signs Sports Betting Might Be Legalized Soon
Those reasons included a U.S. House of Representatives committee drafting a bill to legalize sports betting, along with New Jersey’s 5-year quest to strike down the 1992 PASPA law which bans sportsbooks in 46 states — and restricts them in all but Nevada. Ross Gerber also mentioned the US sports leagues’ increasing embrace in sports betting, as well as gambling destinations.
That includes NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, ex-NBA Commissioner David Stern, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred saying they would support federal regulation of sports betting. Though the NFL’s Roger Goodell is still cold towards the idea of legal sports betting, Gerber noted the NFL and NHL have approved franchises for the Las Vegas area. Activities like sports betting, such as daily fantasy sports and eSports betting, are gaining approval, while we even have a casino-friendly president in the White House.
ESPN’s Loss of Viewers
The Forbes article then suggested sports betting could boost ESPN ratings. The idea behind that suggestion is simple: increased sports betting opportunities increases interest and draws in viewers. Some television viewers are only interested in a game if they have money riding on it.
In the past, I have compared watching sporting events to Hollywood films. If you do not care whether one side or the other win, it’s like watching a movie whose characters you don’t care about. If the film’s main characters do not connect with you, then you find the movie boring.
Why Gambling Boosts TV Ratings
For many viewers, they have a rooting interest simply by being fans of a team (or haters of a team). Those people might not necessarily need gambling to be interested in a game, though some might be more interested if they have money riding on the outcome. For those with no emotional connection to a team or player, a bet is a good way to generate an interest in the game’s results.
Extrapolated to 330 million Americans, legalized gambling in dozens of US states would increase viewership of many sports. ESPN naturally would receive a boost in their ratings, if sports betting was legalized at the federal level.
Why ESPN Lost Viewers
The Forbes article discussed why ESPN lost viewers in the first place. One theory is Middle America got tired of the increasingly liberal slant of ESPN and tuned out. Mr. Gerber disputed that claim, saying that viewers in red states who canceled premium cable channels also would lose FoxNews, for instance.
Cable subscriptions are down from 68 million in 2010 to 54 million in 2016, so there might be fewer viewers of ESPN. The fact is, most cable subscribers are in the population centers, where liberal viewpoints are not as much of a turnoff. The loss of subscribers from cable has more to do with the consolidation of the cable industry, which caused a lack of competition and a drop in service. That, in turn, led to a drop in customer satisfaction. As the commercials say, more people are switching from cable these days.
More Competition for Sports Viewers
Competition might be ESPN’s biggest problem. The NFL Network launched in 2003, but Comcast and Time Warner did not add the NFL Network until 2006 and 2007, respectively. NBA TV launched in 1999, but it was not picked up by DirecTV and Comcast until 2009. MLB Network launched in 2009. Comcast bought 51% of Golf Channel in 2011. A federal ruling required Comcast to add Tennis Channel to its basic package in 2012.
In short, a variety of more targeted sports broadcasting alternatives appeared in the years immediately before ESPN’s decline. Add into the mix the Big Ten Network, ACC Network, and other college sports channels and ESPN faces much stiffer competition than ever before. ESPN has countered with a variety of targeted channels of its own, such as ESPNU, ESPNDeportes, SEC Network, and Longhorn Network to attract viewers.
On-Air Personalities Turn People Off
As you can see, ESPN’s viewership declined due to competition. If anything, their sports network’s on-air problems had less to do with politics and more to do with personalities. Most programming includes personality-driven, opinion-driven broadcasts. Regardless of the politics involved, most people do not find Skip Bayless and Steven A. Smith arguing that entertaining. A half-dozen other shows based on the same basic premise was certain to lose viewers. While SportsCenter was once a must-see sports program, the Internet offers timelier updates.
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