Keith Olbermann. Bill Simmons. Jason Whitlock. Colin Cowherd. Skip Bayless. Mike Tirico. Brad Nessler. Chris Spielman. 300 employees. Grantland. Seven million subscribers.
That's the bulk of ESPN's losses over the last two years, revenue not withstanding. Those names have departed within the last year alone, either through firings or quitting for another job on a rival network. A lot of those names are household for a sports fan in some way. I liked Olbermann and Simmons, loved Tirico, Nessler and Spielman on football games, collegiate and pro, was 50-50 on Whitlock and I hated Cowherd and Bayless, but still listened to their musings just so I could disagree with them.
Now, none of those personalities, all of whom had made an impression with "The Total Sports Leader," are there anymore to entertain any of us.
Which begs the ultimate question: Who is still watching ESPN? And why?
Even before all of the recent shakeup in Bristol, I wasn't watching the four-letter network for more than college football games and 30 for 30 documentaries. Everything else within that channel from First Take to SportsCenter has taken a definite hit in quality within the last decade.
A closer look at the seven millions subscribers lost by ESPN shows that they are made up of cable customers either downgrading their packages to lower options that don't include ESPN, or cutting the cord altogether and opting for Internet connection streaming entertainment only through apps and websites.
I tried both of those options myself at different points, first going Internet only to cut my bill down to $45 a month, and then later once again dropping to a lower cable package to drop my price from a higher level. In both cases, I came back to a Comcast package that included ESPN because of live sports. I needed it then and I still need it now and that might be the saving grace for ESPN's seemingly sinking ship of a network.
The thing is, with the network hemorrhaging money in the first place and having to cut costs, there is now competition that smells blood in the water and sees a shot to strike into the Disney-ESPN juggernaut. It's no surprise or coincidence that Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless have both gone to FOX Sports and now Chris Spielman will be joining them to do NFL football. Mike Tirico who had been with the four-letter network for decades dropped a rock-solid spot on Monday Night Football to go to NBC and handle their olympics coverage in Rio this summer, and there's speculation that he is next in line for NBC Sunday Night Football after Al Michaels retires at some point.
Brad Nessler is headed to CBS to call NFL games until he takes over SEC football broadcasts from Verne Lundquist.
All of these networks have a lot of ground to make up before they can even come close to usurping ESPN, but it's not getting any easier for the folks in Bristol for sure. Whatever major sports personalities the network had for people to tune in to are now mostly gone and fans are hit or miss on the ESPN programming today. Even pregame and postgame shows for live sports are taking a hit on the network because of the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL all having their own networks with their own programmed pregame and postgame shows.
And then there's the Internet itself. Live sports is still finding its way through the web, but it has made strides in the last few years with Yahoo paying for the rights to exclusively broadcast an NFL game last year, Twitter buying the rights to stream ten Thursday Night Football games globally over the web, and MLB reaching a three-year deal with FOX to live stream baseball games in 15 markets on mobile devices and computers. ESPN has a WatchESPN app that works the same way if you have an ESPN subscription, but given where the landscape of TV is headed, they may want to go the HBO route and offer WatchESPN as an app by itself for a monthly fee.
The bottom line is that ESPN is a shell of its former self in terms of being a quality sports network and fans are getting wise to it. There's more options now for games, highlights and general information that we need to know that unless we are watching a game that can only be found on ESPN, or checking out the latest 30 for 30 documentary, we are changing the channel.