83 percent of households with cable television turned on ESPN in the first quarter of 2015, according to Disney CEO Robert Iger. The statistic carries some serious impact amidst investor worries about the “great unbundling” — the day when cable’s virtual monopoly on channels, having been slowly eroding, finally crumbles to the ground. With so many sources streaming content direct to consumers, the consensus is that consumers will pay only for what they want — and all those channels piggybacking on the success of the big winners will be cast out into the desert.
And that’s where ESPN’s 83 percent figure comes in. Because it demonstrates ESPN’s desirability. ESPN has the programming that people want, and even when consumers are given a chance to stop subsidizing also-ran channels, they’ll still pay for ESPN however it’s delivered. Because it’s premium content with no competition. ESPN has secured the rights to the lion’s share of elite sports content for the foreseeable future — and if its revenue from cable drops, the content that made that revenue stream possible in the first place will remain a draw. Here it seems the aphorism is wrong: the medium isn’t the message; the game is the message. People want to see the game.