ESPN will be fine, but its ratings drops come at a bad time

USA TODAY Sports

The fuss and pushback from the network are a little much, but ESPN's ratings are dropping in a lot of key areas, and they're dropping at the wrong time.

If you follow sports media, you've probably heard quite a bit of noise this week, because when ESPN is involved in anything, it makes noise. That's how it got to the top, becoming one of the most profitable cable networks ever and the king of all sports media. It is an empire. Somebody walked up to the city walls and shot a few arrows at the mighty empire, and they surprisingly connected. The empire fought back.

Other outlets, such as Sports Business Daily, Deadspin and even The Late Show with David Letterman have pointed out the network's ratings failings in the past quarter. The network still averaged more than 1.3 million viewers per night in primetime during the second quarter of 2013, double what the nearest competitor (NBC Sports Network: 619,000 viewers) is drawing at night. In total-day audience, ESPN averages 715,000 viewers. That's more than the next four most-watched networks combined, and includes ESPN2, which is in second place.

Still, there are problems with that primetime figure. ESPN averaged close to 2 million viewers per night in primetime last year. That's a 32 percent drop. ESPN, in its Front Row "defense" of the numbers where a network exec and ratings researcher called the loss in viewers "an aberration," put the blame on a lack of NBA conference final matchups and a lack of major-market NBA Playoff games in total.

This is worthwhile and logical and perfectly fine reasoning, though the dubious @TVSportsRTGS account has questioned them, saying network numbers are down 12 percent even if you took away the NBA. So let's not focus on it. The thing is, NBA programming isn't the only place where the network is seeing losses.

The network's flagship program, SportsCenter, has seen decreases in two of its key dayparts, the 6 p.m. ET show and the 11 p.m. ET show, according to numbers obtained by SB Nation. The early show is currently averaging 665,000 viewers, down eight percent from this time last year. The late show, which usually airs at 11 p.m. ET but is often late due to primetime programming (such as the NBA Playoffs), is averaging 870,000 viewers. That's down 21 percent from last year.

Now here's how you can look at it, as far as context goes. The late show dropping in audience is totally blameable on a lackluster (or at least not as major market-heavy) NBA postseason. But I can't imagine NBA postseason games, which start well past 8 p.m. ET most nights, are what the 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter depends on for audience. To me, that show's drop is far more interesting and far more indicative of ESPN's slump.

There are other factors that can be looked into. For one -- and I feel almost sick to my stomach using this in such a trivial matter -- the Boston Marathon bombing took people away from sports for a couple of weeks. You can argue that all non-game programming was likely fairly toxic, just because it seemed trivial based on whatever else was going on. That said, it is only a couple of weeks within an entire span of three months.

Here's why I feel the numbers are more than just "an aberration." Remember that 715,000 figure I mentioned as being ESPN's total-day audience? That is down 20 percent from the same time last year. That's more than just people not being as interested in sports or having weaker NBA games. That's a programming problem; that's decreasing interest in the network. ESPN2 is also down in total-day audience and primetime.

Look, nothing here is catastrophic. The Aaron Hernandez story will likely bring ratings gains to SportsCenter and shows in various other dayparts in quarter three, and by the end of that quarter, football -- the panacea to all that ails -- will have returned. But everyone has to admit one thing: this is terrible timing for the network to have what is its worst quarter in primetime in seven years.

This is after the network had a heavily publicized downsizing six weeks ago. Most importantly, it comes a month before what might be one of the more important days and weeks in sports television history. Fox Sports 1 debuts August 17 (less importantly, but also noteworthy: NBC Sports Network launches its pricey English Premier League coverage the same day). It has made some hires that have not only made noise, but brought the new network immediate goodwill with potential viewers. Those hires will impact the very programming blocks that ESPN has seen drops in.

Nobody's saying this is the fall of an empire. ESPN is still number one, and will likely be number one for years, perhaps even decades to come. But maybe, just maybe, for a few months, the network showed some cracks in its usually ironclad, blemish-proof armor. That it happened at the worst possible time makes it all the more interesting to see what happens next.

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