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ESPN: Still the Worldwide Leader

ESPN has made headlines recently over the departure of high-profile talent and a net loss of subscribers in a very competitive and evolving television marketplace.

Yet, as it enters the second half of 2015, the programmer’s position as the unquestioned leader in sports television doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy of collapsing anytime soon, even if its sturdy foundation may show a crack or two.

There’s no doubt ESPN took a PR hit with the recent loss of high-profile — and high-priced — personalities in Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd. Several reports have framed the losses as cost-cutting measures. Company president John Skipper, during the network’s upfront presentation this past May, said as much about Simmons, who will now host a weekly sports show on HBO.

In a TV environment where traditional advertising and affiliate-fee revenue sources are challenged by new platforms and the evolving way consumers access and view television, it would be foolhardy for any cable or broadcast network not to continuously evaluate how it conducts its business. ESPN is no exception.

ESPN’s virtual DVR-proof live sports programing continues to draw viewers, though. ESPN finished fifth among all cable networks in primetime second-quarter ratings, according to Nielsen, although its 1.5 million average audience was down 11% year-over-year. All but one of the four cable networks ahead of it also posted a ratings drop, though. The return of college and pro football should help ESPN continue its perennial run as cable’s fourth-quarter primetime ratings king.

The company also is investing in the digital present and future with digital services WatchESPN and ESPN3, and has signed onto Dish Network’s over-the-top Sling TV service.

There’s no question that ESPN, along with the rest of the TV industry, faces challenges adjusting to a changing marketplace. But for now, it seems a stretch to say that ESPN is struggling to score points just because it has decided to punt the ball a couple of times.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.