ESPN gets buried on social media by Bleacher Report, Barstool


lebron james

Getty Images/Jason

  • ESPN has dominated sports on TV for decades, but the
    same can’t be said for sports on social media.
  • Data shows that rivals Bleacher Report and Barstool
    Sports have done a better job of engaging social audiences, and
    gained an increasing share of ad dollars.
  • The comparisons raise thorny questions for the
    Disney-owned sports-media giant — namely, does it even care if
    it’s not good at social media?
  • While there’s still plenty of money to be had from TV
    ads, the long-term risk is that it’ll lose its position with
    young audiences.

Sports are as much about fandom and conversation as they are
about watching games, and for a long time ESPN’s hit show
“SportsCenter” owned that conversation.

Not only did it have a lockdown on all the key highlights on a
given day, but it had hipster anchors like Dan Patrick, Keith
Olbermann, and Stuart Scott tossing off catchphrases and building
devoted followings of their own.

Now, for many young fans, the trash talk and highlight reels are
found on social media, in shareable digital videos on Facebook
and through
witty posts on Instagram
or Twitter. And instead of coming
from ESPN, they’re coming from newer rivals like Bleacher Report
and Barstool Sports. This is especially true in the
exploding world of social video.

ESPN says it has different objectives than the
startups when it comes to social media. Critics say this shows
that the Disney-owned network doesn’t seem to understand the
challenges heading its way as viewer behavior

“How people are consuming sports content is changing
in a lot of ways,” said Adam Mendelsohn, media and communications
adviser to NBA star LeBron James. “You have new platforms
delivering sports-specific content to fans.”

Though it’s still profitable, and generating billions in revenue
thanks to exclusive deals with major sports leagues for live
games, the once invincible business model has been
autopsied incessantly
as profits have fallen and layoffs
followed. The 11 p.m. broadcast of SportsCenter in saw its
audience of 18- to 49-year-olds fall 18% in August, compared with
last year, Nielsen data show.

Some culprits ESPN can’t really control — like
by viewers tired of paying high cable bills, or
a drop in
NFL ratings
. Also, it has found itself caught up in the
political conversation as it faces accusations — including from
Donald Trump
— of
a hidden liberal bias

But ESPN does have control over how it engages sports fans
online. There’s no reason to expect the erosion of cable-sports
subscriptions and viewership to end. And while
the rights to broadcast a live game
are safe, for now, the
network’s soft underbelly is all the programming that isn’t a
live game.

“The live game is still the premiere product and still has high
demand for advertisers,” Mendelsohn said. “What is created around
that is what is changing rapidly. Those advertising dollars that
go to ‘SportsCenter’ and afternoon talk shows are in

‘Just talk to a 24-year-old’

ESPN’s fast-growing digital rivals say the network’s focus
on broadcast means it has missed a chance to keep its brand
relevant, and they see an opportunity to gloat about it.

“Just talk to a 24-year-old,” says David Finocchio, co-founder,
and CEO of Bleacher Report, the 10-year-old digital-media brand
acquired by Time Warner for $170 million that has fast grown to
45 million unique visitors in the US, according to comScore.
Bleacher says it reaches 250 million people each month
overall thanks to its social footprint.
“Our social content
is better because we have a more peer-to-peer voice,” he said.
“We connect with younger people like they’re texting their
friends, not like a classic media company shouting out.

“If a traditional media company uses terms like ‘dope’ or ‘lit,’
it comes across as condescending,” he said. “They can’t get away
with it.”

On the surface, ESPN’s social-media presence does appear fairly
lit. It has 33.5 million Twitter followers whereas Bleacher
Report has 5 million and edgy upstart Barstool Sports has
900,000. ESPN’s has 18.3 million Facebook followers, compared to
7.4 million for Bleacher and 1.3 million for Barstool.
It’s similar on Instagram
, where ESPN has 8.6 million
followers versus 5.2 million for Bleacher and 2.7 million for

But a look at data from the
Facebook-owned analytics company CrowdTangle shows
companies such as Bleacher, Barstool, and the YouTube sports
network Whistle Sports consistently get more people to interact
with their social-media content — shares, likes, views, comments
— at much higher rates than ESPN.

Below the surface

sports social engagement v3
varies on social media for the big sports


As a result, far more people can end up seeing content from
ESPN’s rivals. On Facebook, from June 1 to September 1, Bleacher
generated 442 million video views and Barstool generated 312
million, according to CrowdTangle. ESPN, despite having the
rights to every major sports league and decades worth of
experience producing “SportsCenter,” generated fewer than 100

Why? Is ESPN just not good at social media? Is it just not a
priority? Does the company have different goals?

Well, here’s a recent ESPN post:

The tone is slightly different at Bleacher.

And then there’s Barstool which is often not safe for work.

Is TV king?

Finocchio thinks it comes down to a focus on TV programming over
all other means of distribution.

“On the ground there’s a different reality. Mobile and social
have fundamentally disrupted how people get sports news and
sports culture. And the reasons you tune into shoulder
programming in the 1990s don’t exist.”

By “shoulder programming” Finocchio refers to content around and
about the games, from highlight shows like “SportsCenter” to
debate series such as “First Take.” That sort of content is seen
by some as harder for ESPN to dominate when everyone can get
instant scores and highlights on their phones.

fb sports video views
Facebook video


The case for ESPN

“There are a lot of answers and a lot of different strategies
when it comes to social media,” said Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s senior
vice president of digital product, design, and audience
development, in an interview with Business Insider.

As Spoon said, ESPN has a massive website and mobile-app
audience, and it makes money on both properties by selling lots
of ads. averaged about 84 million monthly visitors in
the US over the past year. The company’s digital properties log
over a half a billion video starts a month. ESPN also has the
biggest sports app in the US, and sometimes its fantasy app is
No. 2 in the App Store.

So while some digital publishers use content distributed through
social media as the primary venue to engage fans, ESPN has to
balance that goal with a need to drive social media fans to its
sites and apps.

“We have a very large digital property,” he said. “We find ways
to have the two sides engage each other.”

Plus, ESPN could argue that CrowdTangle data doesn’t tell the
whole story. For example, July data from the analytics firm
Shareable showed that
ESPN had 169.8 million total actions in social media (likes,
shares) versus 163.7 million for Bleacher Report.

Regardless, just driving social engagement or views off ESPN
properties is “not necessarily the primary goal,” Spoon said. And
network is planning a direct-to-consumer streaming service in

“If [racking up social views or likes] is your core, it will
drive your strategy,” Spoon said. “There will be lots of fan
chatter on social platforms, and we want to be a part of that.
But we also hope to drive substantial streaming [on ESPN
properties]. I don’t wake up any morning looking at just one

The reality of media buying

Beyond social metrics, of course, there’s ESPN’s still very
enviable TV business.

Kagan, a media-research group within S&P Global Market
Intelligence, last year estimated that ESPN hauled in $2.1
billion in advertising and $7.6 billion in affiliate fees. You
can see why ESPN might not sweat a handful of seven-figure
social-media sponsorships.

Talk to a traditional TV ad buyer, and they’ll say they’re still
concerned with how many ratings points are available on “Monday
Night Football.” ESPN averaged
11.4 million viewers for its MNF games last year, reported

Realistically, a brand like Procter & Gamble couldn’t take a
few hundred million dollars off ESPN and put it into Bleacher
Report videos if it wanted to. There simply isn’t enough
inventory or a big enough audience — yet.

It’s easy to see, then, why ESPN might not see a need to
worry about scooping up every custom web-video ad deal and is
focused on getting the Budweisers of the world to renew their
lucrative college-football sponsorships instead.

But there are plenty of examples of seemingly invulnerable media
companies ignoring smaller audience and revenue areas and
suddenly finding themselves behind. Some move quickly to correct
course, like when Facebook dove headfirst into mobile; others
struggle. Think of the once vital newsmagazines Time and
Newsweek. Or MTV sleeping on the growth of youth-culture
juggernauts Spotify and Snapchat.

“We talk about this all the time,” said Dan Donnelly, executive
vice president and managing director at Publicis Media Sports,
referring to whether social-media sports consumption is a
vulnerability for ESPN.

“We try and take a step back and say, ‘What are we trying to
accomplish here?’ Are we trying to expand beyond a partnership
with a league or fan? Or are you just looking to connect with
this audience?”

espn college gamedayTed
S. Warren/AP Images

ESPN still delivers massive events, and that’s “awesome,”
Donnelly said, but “that’s going to continue to erode a bit.”

If marketers want to do something more custom and creative, often
they turn to Bleacher Report and sites like it, said

“It’s more strategic,” he said. “You can really try to embed
yourself in content that’s relevant. As a media buyer, you are
still looking for the most scaled opportunity, but more and more
you are looking to complement the scale with relevance and

fb sports interaction rate
Facebook interaction


House of Highlights

Instagram account House of Highlights
is seemingly swimming
in the kind authenticity ESPN wants to hold on to. The
Bleacher-owned property is literally the product of one young
superfan, 23-year-old Omar Raja.

Raja started House of Highlights
three years ago as a place to share fun sports highlights, from
amazing plays to strange amateur clips to perfectly capture
facial expressions from big names like Carmelo Anthony
that become instant memes.

House of Highlights gets 400 million views a month on Instagram,
. It has nearly 7 million followers, including big
athletes. “Three years later you have LeBron reposting me,” Raja

Raja said he posts four or five clips a day, after sifting
through 400 to 500 submissions, including some from pro athletes.
Why has this worked? And why aren’t these fans just going to
their ESPN app for this stuff?

“It speaks from an actual person’s voice,” Raja said. “Like when
you and you are boys are talking. If ‘SportsCenter’ posted
something like that, it would come off as so weird and strange.”

House of Highlights doesn’t yet make money, which might explain
why a company like ESPN isn’t looking to emulate it just yet. But
the plan is for Bleacher to start selling ads and exploring
e-commerce next year.

Bleacher Reports excels on InstagramCrowdtangle

Watch out for Barstool…and Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google, and

Earlier this year, the Barstool Sports
posted a story and series of videos chronicling how long an
intern at the company could resist masturbation
. It’s
certainly hard to imagine that on ESPN. And that’s the kind of
content that some advertisers would not want to go near.

But fans of Barstool eat it up.

barstool instagram
hard to imagine ESPN featuring someone getting


Ian Schafer, founder of Deep Focus, remembers a time when
“SportsCenter” had a cultural resonance and edge that defined the
brand. Now he sees up-and-comers like Barstool stealing that
mantle with a fan dynamic he likens to that of Howard Stern.

To date, Barstool has only a few million monthly visitors, but
“the engagement is huge,” said Schafer. “And right now, they may
be better at talent development than ESPN. That’s a giant red
flag for them. ESPN is still living on its live-streaming

Schafer worries whether ESPN’s lack of social-media and
digital-culture focus will cost it over time with young fans.
Witness the firestorm over “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill

speaking out about Trump

“They are not very relevant culturally,” he said. “Your
personality can never be bigger than the network.”

But still, ESPN has all the big games and that’s not changing
until several US sports deals expire in the 2020s.

The threat for ESPN, Schafer says, is what happens when another
media entity snatches some of the rights up.

“ESPN’s biggest threat is the cash situation of Netflix, Amazon,
et cetera,” he said. “Without their league deals, what would they

Publish Date

Leave a Reply