As more fans cut the cord and go mobile, the network is busy protecting its cable-TV money machine.
The main SportsCenter studio at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., is a blue-lit box. The ceiling is as high as a cathedral’s, and there’s enough floor space to land a helicopter. Screens are everywhere. “We have about 150 different monitors in here and, of course, miles of LED lighting,” says Aaron LaBerge, the sports network’s chief technology officer, during a recent tour. The hosts’ desk faces a wall of screens that jut out and recede like a giant chest of drawers. To one side, there’s a six-panel touchscreen that can slide apart and come together with the push of a button; a more modest 84-inch touchscreen across the way displays an interactive bracket for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. The show’s producers can also summon virtual screens from the floor so that, say, the shooting stats of Oregon sophomore Tyler Dorsey can appear to viewers to float miraculously in the middle of the room. “It’s probably one of the most technically sophisticated broadcast and content centers in the world,” LaBerge says of the building that houses this studio and four others.
ESPN broke ground on this $175 million, 194,000-square-foot facility, called Digital Center 2, in 2011. It was billed by executives as “future-proof,” capable of adapting to any possible change in the way people watch sports. At the time, ESPN looked indestructible. Its namesake cable channel had just topped 100 million subscribers and was posting record profits for its parent company, Walt Disney Co., even as streaming apps such as Netflix were growing rapidly. Ratings for live sports, unlike almost everything else on TV, were soaring. And ESPN had big games year-round—Monday Night Football, college football bowl games, Major League Baseball’s opening day, and the NBA playoffs, to name a few. A cover story in this magazine in the fall of 2012dubbed ESPN the “Everywhere Sports Profit Network.”
Five years later the network’s profits are shrinking, and the 10,000-square-foot SportsCenter studio has already begun to look like a relic. The show’s formula, in which well-fed men in suits present highlights from the day’s games with Middle-American charm, is less of a draw now that the same highlights are readily available on social media. Viewership for the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, a bellwether for the franchise, fell almost 12 percent from 2015 to last year, according to Nielsen. Keith Olbermann, the SportsCenter-host-turned-political-commentator, put it bluntly on a podcast last year: “There’s just no future in it.”