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ESPN’s Subscriber Base Continues To Shrink

ESPN Bristol CampusLast August, Sports Business Daily reported that the number of households that get ESPN in their pay TV packages dropped by roughly 918,000 from July 2012 to July 2013. Based on SBD‘s published numbers, both ESPN and ESPN2 had more than 100 million subscribers in July 2011. Two years later, both channels had just under 98 million subscribers, their lowest number since October 2008.

If we’re to believe Nielsen’s latest numbers, which were tweeted by SBD writer John Ourand on Monday, that subscriber base is shrinking even further.

Ignoring for a moment that ESPN2 seems to have more subscribers than ESPN, which Ourand attributes to “the peculiarities of Nielsen measurements”, it seems the Worldwide Leader in Sports will have lost more than 600,000 subscribers between July and November of this year. Since its apparent peak in the summer of 2011, ESPN has lost more than 2.7 million subscribers.

At its current rates of $5.40/month for the flagship channel and $0.68/month for ESPN2, the boys in Bristol will rake in roughly $3.65 million per month less in subscriber fees in November than they did in July.

One reason these numbers continue to trend downward is that cable, satellite, and IPTV companies are promoting television packages without sports channels. Comcast made headline news when it began offering HBO in a bundle with local channels and broadband service for $40 to $50 per month for the first year. Packages like this seem likely to draw people away from the cable bundle that has made ESPN so fabulously wealthy.

Of course, with more than 97 million homes still on board, ESPN and Disney don’t seem likely to disengage from the cable bundle just yet. As this attrition rate grows, however, how much longer can ESPN and Disney continue propping up a business model that’s losing customers? And how low does the subscriber base have to be before ESPN starts contemplating life outside the cable bundle? 90 million? 80 million? The boys in Bristol might want to start thinking about the future now, just in case.

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