In the mid-1980s, my brother and I primarily watched two channels: MTV and ESPN. Him more the former, and me more the latter. Like many teenagers during that time, we had a VHS tape filled with our favorite music videos that we had recorded over the weeks and months. With a few exceptions, when we turned the channel to MTV, we saw…music.
ESPN was “my” channel. I remember when we first signed up for cable, all I could think about was getting access to ESPN, this mythical channel that showed nothing but sports. Forget about the 5 min sports segment on the nightly news. ESPN had an entire show dedicated to sports highlights! If you wanted to watch the rerun of last night's Whalers-Penguins game after school, you knew where to turn. Turning the channel to ESPN meant I was going to see…sports.
That was over thirty years ago. I haven’t watched MTV since the early 1990s. I tune into ESPN primarily for College Football, and that’s about it. [Cue the segue.] MTV and ESPN represent the television versions of the software monolith. They started out by filling a specific need and then became large systems, with all of their functions tightly coupled together. In their quest for ratings and targeting particular demographics, new features have been added that tighten the coupling to the brand.
In the world of technology, the promise of microservice architecture (or at least one of the promises) is that you can set a boundary for the specific service. That way the service can remain small and focused. We often hear the phrase “do one thing well” in reference to microservices.
In those early days in the mid-1980s, both MTV and ESPN primarily each just did one thing, showing music videos and sports programming, respectively. Fast forward through the 1990s, 2000s, and into the 2010s. Have you looked at the programming for either channel lately? MTV shows actual music for only a handful of hours a day. And ESPN SportsCenter is a hot mess of politics, endless draft predictions, Brett Favre updates, and a few highlights from actual games that you likely don't care about. To continue the theme, here's what ESPN.com’s home page featured mere hours before Game 5 of the NLCS: NFL Week 7 fantasy predictions as the TOP STORY; Dodgers-Cubs news as second billing; four separate features about the allegations against Louisville and Rick Pitino. Eventually we’ll get to the college football weekend coming up, right? Eventually. First we have to scroll past the two features about the presidential election and last night’s debate. On ESPN.
The success of any product is whether the customer uses it — and, in nearly all cases — pays for it. I’m going to describe on how I have personally moved away from the monolithic ESPN for my sports consumption, moving instead toward sports “microservices.” For the first time ever, I am seriously considering killing my cable/dish subscription with little feelings of loss for ESPN. Here are a couple of examples.
DO ONE THING WELL: PROVIDE SCORE UPDATES
Remember when you wanted to know who won the game, especially if that was an out-of-market game? You waited for the newspaper. And if you lived east of the Mississippi, you ran the chance of the dreaded “not available at press time” for West Coast games. Fast-forward a few years and behold “the ticker.” The availability of real-time scores to a sports-loving college student made the polio vaccine look like a non-event. Originally the updates showed up at :28 and :58 past the hour. In 1995, ESPN2 debuted the Bottom Line, the full-time scrolling score updates.
What does the ticker look like now? One can find injury updates, fantasy stats, starting pitchers, draft projections, and a police blotter. Oh, and sometimes there are score updates. Eventually. In other words, if what I want is likely to be in the ticker, I have to wade through a bunch of unwanted information. So I don’t.
The Sports app. Pick your vendor. I have preferred an app that lets me set my favorite teams and sports. When I open it, I see the latest scores for my teams and can quickly get to the league-wide scores with one or two taps. It’s front and center. Are there any serious fantasy sports players in 2016 who are waiting for the ESPN ticker to tell them how many yards their QB threw? Seriously? Are there any baseball fans who don’t already know the starting pitchers for their team? Anyone relying on the ticker to see that the Bears just gave up another 4th quarter score? Anyone? Everything is available online in real-time now, and I just want to watch. the. game.
(Why not use ESPN's app? Because there will always be some emphasis on "the brand;" If that speaks to you, great. If you just want scores, you have plenty of other options.)
DO ONE THING WELL: SHOW SPORTS
What’s your favorite sport? You know you have one. Maybe it’s football. Maybe you love hockey. Or the NBA. I grew up with Cubs games on weekday afternoons after school, so MLB has been #1 for me from the start. I got my stats from baseball cards. I tracked the standings across MLB in the newspaper. The closest thing I had to a dedicated sports show about baseball was NBC’s This Week in Baseball that ran 30 minutes before the Game of the Week. Mel Allen’s voice narrating TWiB brings me right back to my childhood. Take a look at this classic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bocT0VDPsxo
ESPN and SportsCenter brought a lot more baseball to my daily sports diet. During the summer months before football started up again, SportsCenter was full of baseball. I could actually catch highlights of games across the league. When I was in high school, ESPN premiered a new show, Baseball Tonight. Here was a version of TWiB every night of the week! BT was such a part of my summer for years, that my wife would comment during a great play from a Cubs game, “I bet that’ll be a web gem!” It was awesome.
And yet…Baseball Tonight could only ever really be part of the broader ESPN monolith. Football and then hockey season began to chip away at baseball content. By mid-September, your team probably was only highlighted if they were in the playoff hunt. I don’t fault ESPN for this. They were serving many different audiences. It’s why they launched ESPN2 and ESPNews. Eventually, though, not only were their most rabid customers not entirely satisfied, but they also began to see ESPN personalities leave “the worldwide leader.”
I give you...specific networks for MLB, NFL, NHL, and NBA, each owned by the respective leagues. During the baseball season, MLB tonight and Quick Pitch are staples in my house. I get highlights, colorful personalities, key insights, etc. During MLB Tonight, all of the day’s games are covered, including live look-ins to whatever game has interesting content. No-hitter going on in Baltimore? You’re there. Extra-inning drama in Colorado? Ditto. Want to see Pedro Martinez offer his take? MLBN is the place for you.
Because these networks focus on only one sport, they can do things really well AND innovate. It helps to have the rights to all of the content, too. The NFL network has expanded to add the NFL RedZone channel, billed as showing you “every touchdown from every game.” If the NFL is your thing (it’s not mine), this has to be compelling. In the case of MLB, I’m not sure MLB Advanced Media and Statcast would have gotten off the ground as an idea without the league owning their own network. And for the record, MLBAM and Statcast are simply awesome. Throw in the online asset of MLB.tv, and they’ve really got a complete package for any baseball fan.
On the flip side, I have spent precious little time watching NBA highlights in recent years. Why? Because I don’t really follow the NBA. I may catch a few games here and there, but the nuances of basketball don’t hold my interest. I do catch the NHL Network from time to time for highlights — even from the Eastern Conference — and during the playoffs. When you're invested in a sport or a team, there's simply no more complete resource.
This post was really just a fun way to talk about technology and my perspective on the decline of ESPN. I think it applies to more of media consumption than just sports and music. Where do you get your news about current events? The nightly news? CNN.com, Foxnews.com, theonion.com? Your Facebook feed (shudder)? How about your weather? Business news? The availability of media “microservices” means we can consume what we prefer from someone who is doing one thing really well. Want more information on Microservices? Sam Newman's book Building Microservices is a worthwhile read; and although you can find lots of Netflix-related content about microservices architecture, I really enjoyed this video about how Gilt moved from a monolithic architecture to microservices.
So, when will I actually cut my cable and get rid of the monolith? After college football season...