Disney's (DIS) ESPN is trading highlights for personalities.
The country's largest sports network took over a Times Square theater Tuesday morning, bringing out a bevy of famous athletes and a new generation of on-air personalities tasked with breathing new life into a network forced to adapt to subscriber losses and slowing ad sales.
Before a throng of ad buyers and media executives, ESPN CEO John Skipper declared that the network was making changes to programming and distribution in light of subscriber losses and a sluggish advertising market for cable TV. Joined onstage by on-air personality Mike Greenberg and SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt as well as tennis star Serena Williams and basketball great Paul Pierce, Skipper said ESPN still offers ad buyers unparalleled access to mass audiences despite industry challenges.
"Sports engenders optimism," Skipper said. "Fans, players, coaches and teams begin every season with hope, so it follows that we at ESPN are optimists. Of course, the current environment forces us to be realists as well as optimists. ESPN is responding to change, and we are making changes from the most dramatic position of strength."
Indeed, few would doubt that ESPN remains the largest U.S. media company focused on sports. For evidence, Skipper said ESPN's TV networks, its websites and apps reached 210 million U.S. residents per month last fall, a new record for Disney's largest business unit. Its digital platforms, he added, reach 100 million people per month.
Yet over the past year, ESPN has been jolted by an acceleration of cord-cutting. During the first quarter, ESPN's subscriber losses totaled about 50 basis points, or 0.5%, the company said last week. That may seem small, but for an operation as large as ESPN, that's a worrisome hit to revenue. The network has shrunk by 12 million subscribers since 2011, and most alarming, it lost 621,000 subscribers in October alone.