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Live Sports or Bust: Networks Rattled as Sports Are 95 of Top 100 Programs in 2021

Jeff Kotuby

As if we didn’t already know sports were the last bastion of live content, new figures reported by ESPN should seal the deal.

According to data provided by ESPN’s VP of brand strategy & content insights Flora Kelly, sports accounted for the highest share of top 100 broadcasts this year, just like it did in 2011. The problem? In 2011, sports made up 51 of the top 100 programs. In 2021, sports made up 95 of the top 100 live broadcasts. In just 10 years, non-sports programming has become almost irrelevant.

The only non-sports programs to crack the top 100 live broadcasts in 2021 were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the “Equalizer” pilot that followed the Super Bowl, “New Year’s Rockin Eve,” Oprah's interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, and the post-January 6th Capitol Riot edition of “60 Minutes.” Everything else was sports-related.

We’ve long known live sports are the last hope for cable providers and advertisers alike, as they’re the only thing drawing viewers to television, which is why sports rights, especially the NFL, are so valuable. Broadcast companies paid over $100 billion to the NFL for broadcasting rights this past year in a deal that included CBS, FOX, ESPN, and Amazon. Even the NHL received big bucks during its latest media rights agreement, with ESPN and Turner Sports paying up to take the league from its longtime home over at NBC. Expect the NBA to receive a large sum of cash when its rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports expires in 2024.

This report also makes the idea of ESPN dumping cable and going DTC even more likely than in the past. The Streamable recently speculated on whether or not ESPN would ever do such a thing, with insiders saying the move would come within the next 5 years given the current cord-cutting landscape. But armed with this info, it’s clear who needs who in the ESPN/linear cable relationship — and it’s clear who’s the hot one in this pair.

ESPN is already laying the foundation for a potential future move with ESPN+, its live sports streaming service. ESPN+ reached 17.1 million subscribers as of last month and the platform has steadily grown since its launch in 2018. ESPN has moved more content to ESPN+ over the years, including its “30 for 30” documentaries, live feeds of its ESPN Radio programming, and even studio shows that are exclusive to ESPN+. Disney has also said it will invest in streaming throughout 2022 and beyond, meaning we could see even more from ESPN+ moving forward.