To borrow one of its advertising taglines, this is ESPN: a network as big as the leagues it covers. As a business, ESPN thrives because it is playing a different game than the big public-airwaves networks. NBC and CBS make money from advertising. ESPN does, too, but it takes in even more from cable-subscriber fees—an average of $4.69 per household per month, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Last February, ESPN entered its 100 millionth American home. By comparison, the next costliest national network, TNT, takes in just $1.16 from about as many homes. If this were Pop Warner, the refs would have called the mercy rule by now.
A new president, John Skipper, took over the network on Jan. 1. Promoted from within, he is expected to chart a steady course—but it won’t be easy. When one team is running up the score, resentment is inevitable, and in 2012 ESPN finds itself the object of criticism on a variety of fronts. Uniting them all is a sense that “The Worldwide Leader,” as its slogan goes, has gotten too big for its own good. By driving up the price of sports-rights packages and passing along the cost to consumers, ESPN helps send monthly cable bills through the roof. And in order to maintain favorable access to athletes, teams, and entire leagues, it is widely accused of downplaying stories that cast sports in a negative light. Live games may lead fans to watch ESPN more and more, but they’re seeing less and less of the network they fell in love with.