ESPN Looks to Facebook Watch to Help Recover Lost Viewers

First Take: Your Take debuted on the social network's video platform Jan. 29

ESPN has lost more than 13 million subscribers over the past six years. ESPN

Despite ESPN’s attempt to paint a rosy picture, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has been losing some of its luster for quite some time now.

The company boasts an average of 2.058 million viewers in primetime in 2017 across TV and streaming—which is up 7 percent from 2016—and a 1 percent rise in average total-day viewership. However, last month, Sports TV Ratings estimated the sports network’s total household reach at 86.721 million; last June, Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported that ESPN has lost more than 13 million subscribers over the past six years, falling from more than 100 million homes reached during the summer of 2011 to 87 million at the time of his story. Ourand pointed out that ESPN’s 13 million-home drop from June 2011 through June 2017 outpaced that of the overall pay TV industry, which shed 9 million homes during that same time period.

Those losses have impacted ESPN’s work force: The sports network laid off about 100 people last April, including some big-name on-air talent, before making another 150 cuts last November in production, technology and other digital positions.

During ESPN parent Disney’s fourth-quarter and full-year-2017 earnings call earlier this week, chairman and CEO Robert Iger announced the first step toward addressing those subscriber losses: ESPN Plus, a direct-to-consumer, over-the-top service that will launch this spring as part of a redesign of the ESPN application.

Iger said during the earnings call that the redesigned flagship app “will allow users to access sports scores and highlights, stream our channels on an authenticated basis and subscribe to ESPN Plus for additional sports coverage, including thousands of live sporting events” that are not available via the network’s current channels.

He offered more details on those events on CNBC’s Closing Bell, saying that ESPN Plus will feature some 10,000 each year, including Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, Grand Slam tennis event and collegiate sports.

All of that comes at a price: $4.99 per month to be exact, according to Iger. But how is ESPN attempting to win back the eyeballs of fans who have balked at paying for its content? One answer to that is taking one of its successful non-live-event shows and tailoring it to the world’s largest social network.

ESPN brought its First Take weekday-morning talk show to Facebook Watch in the form of First Take: Your Take, a show hosted by Molly Qerim that invites sports fans to upload their “takes” of a sports discussion with the chance to go mano-a-mano with commentators Stephen A. Smith or Max Kellerman. The show debuted Monday, Jan. 29, and it’s being livestreamed three times per week.

Michael McCarthy of Sporting News reported last month that First Take averaged 449,000 viewers in 2017, up 25 percent compared with the previous year, adding that its audience in the 18-through-34 demographic rose 29 percent last year.

The sports network said it tailored First Take to the social network’s video platform by adding viewer interaction and engagement. Senior vice president of social content Ryan Spoon expanded on that: “Just like our SportsCenter on Snapchat show, we set out to create a show specifically for that platform and that user base—something that can marry the best of ESPN with the best of the partner and platform. In the case of First Take: Your Take, we think this is absolutely that: It’s a format and show that is familiar and successful on ESPN, but done with a really fun, interactive layer that can be done uniquely with Facebook and Facebook Watch.”

ESPN confirmed that it planned to run ads during First Take: Your Take, but it declined to offer further details. The first week’s slate of three episodes ran ad-free, as did the initial installment of week two. The network added it was “working through some sponsorship opportunities,” but it had nothing to share at this time.

Why has ESPN encountered difficulties in selling brands on First Take: Your Take? Short answer: Facebook Watch is still a very young platform. “There hasn’t been a huge pool of content out there that’s triggered the ‘I have to be there’ feeling,” said Publicis Media Sport and Entertainment director Adrian Sutherland, adding that the industry’s shift toward “more personalized and relevant ad content” does not bode well for Facebook Watch.

Sutherland liked the concept of First Take: Your Take, calling the ability to involve viewers in the experience “an advertisers’ dream,” but he also pointed out some potential pitfalls.

“First Take: Your Take is a unique program because it’s user-generated-content-based,” he explained. “From an advertising perspective, UGC is usually the output of a brand call to action. In such a format, does a brand really have the opportunity to dictate what topics are covered on this show? If they do, it may ruin the foundation of what First Take was built on—debating live, relevant sport topics for the day of week. Identifying an avenue where brands can participate or add value to a debate will be the catalyst for how successful this show can be.”

In addition to First Take: Your Take and the Snapchat version of SportsCenter, ESPN also entered the Twitter livestreaming fray this past fall with Rankings Reactions, in which Mike Golic Jr. and Jason Fitz discussed the College Football Playoff rankings each Tuesday.

Spoon said of ESPN’s offerings on the various platforms: “Our strategy is simply in line with what we’ve been doing across all mediums and platforms—reach and engage with sports fans. We’ve always had tremendous, best-in-class success doing that on TV, through audio, and on our digital properties. We’re now doing the same on these large social platforms.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.