x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

ESPN Network is no longer a worldwide leader in sports for UAE

Sports network pulled all three channels in the UAE and have retreated from Europe and Africa this year without explanation, writes Gregg Patton.

Atlanta Braves are the best team in the MLB but baseball fans in the UAE will be hard pressed to see them on TV when the play-offs start because ESPN went off the air. Tami Chappell / Reuters
Atlanta Braves are the best team in the MLB but baseball fans in the UAE will be hard pressed to see them on TV when the play-offs start because ESPN went off the air. Tami Chappell / Reuters

When ESPN's three channels went off the air in the UAE at the beginning of this month, there was no explanation from the network or the local cable carriers.

The conclusion, however, is an obvious one, according to an America media expert. The venture was not profitable, or profitable enough.

"Typically with ESPN, things begin and end with two things – the bottom line and furthering their brand," said Daniel T Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, and a professor at the University of Southern California.

"They tend to be secretive about their finances. Since they're not being terribly open, we can speculate. It's possible they're not getting the level of compensation they expect from their vendors, and the vendors are not getting the viewership they need to make it work."

ESPN has been retreating from the broadcast arena in most of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) since early this year. The three channels available in the UAE – ESPN, ESPN Classic and ESPN America – carried a wide variety of North American sports, from coverage of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and college football and basketball to analysis, talk shows and highlight shows. Subscribers to Etisalat paid US$8 (Dh30) monthly for the three stations, or nearly double what US subscribers are charged.

ESPN's international visibility increased when it bought the former North American Sports Network in 2007, and renamed it ESPN America in 2009. Now it appears to be going the other way.

This month, the ESPN America website offered a "thank you" to its viewers, and suggested they continue to follow sports through the company's other media avenues – broadband, pay windows on its website and social media.

ESPN spokesperson Paul Melvin, said via email that the network will continue to have a presence in Great Britain and Ireland through an agreement with BT Sports, reached in February.

"Following that," Melvin wrote, "ESPN reviewed its wider regional business and made some strategic decisions to cease operations of our TV channels and shift our focus in the EMEA region" to other media platforms.

Durbin said that sports coverage is expanding across multiple media platforms, but "in this case, it smacks of an excuse. Everything is cost-benefit with ESPN," he said.

The network has existed since 1979, during the early days of cable TV in the United States. ESPN's multiple channels are a basic presence on virtually every provider's lineup in the US and usually represents the single biggest monthly cost passed on to consumers.

"ESPN has been a basic part of coverage for so long, they have a specific amount they want from any agreement and they will threaten to leave if they don't get it," Durbin said.

But because the retreat from Europe, Africa and the Middle East has been so sweeping, Durbin said it is unlikely that the latest development is over a few squabbles with local providers.

"They still want to brand everything in sight," he said of the company that has long billed itself as "the worldwide leader" in sports broadcasting.

"There may be something else going on, that they are looking at other agreements or contracts in the future that will bring them a greater cash return."

For now, though, the worldwide leader's world has gotten smaller.


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