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ESPN Still Dominant, But Facing Significant Challenges

To follow up on our recent discussions about the  changing television landscape, here's the New York Times on ESPN's strange situation: hugely dominant, yet quite vulnerable.

It's a long article, but here are a few minor points to keep in mind:

  • ESPN (just the original channel, not the newer ones) currently pulls in $5.54 per subscriber for Disney. The next highest cable network, TNT, pulls in $1.24.
  • Almost 900,00 people gave up cable last year. In the last two years, ESPN has lost 1,000,000 subscribers.
  • ESPN's ratings fell 32% last year.

That's not to suggest that ESPN is in immediate trouble. The network still stands over broadcast sports like the Colossus of Rhodes, and competition for programming is heating up, not slowing down.

Things are changing, though, and even a business as dominant and profitable as ESPN has significant concerns, because no one has any idea how things are going to unfold in the near future.

Technological innovations aside, the world economy is still shaky. In the U.S., the Commerce Department just reported that  durable goods orders dropped 7.3 percent.  The Chinese financial sector, hardly a model of transparency, may be building a troubling debt burden and there's really no way to know how bad the problem may be. The Middle East remains a vital source of oil, particularly for China and Europe, and also remains a complete powder keg. In fact, between stunning changes in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey, it's probably as dangerous as it's ever been.

ESPN is losing viewers in a time when the economy is struggling but functional. Change happens with disruption, which may come from innovation. It may also come from rather more dangerous sources as well.