On Thursday, ESPN put out a press release which essentially said it’s that time of the year where you have to go out of your way to avoid Stephen A. Smith. It’s become an annual thing, typically around the NBA Playoffs, where the powers to be decide Stephen A’s presence on additional ESPN shows and platforms (mainly SportsCenter) is a good thing.

Personally, I don’t get it, but I get the rationale behind it and will leave it at that.

But Stephen A. being parachuted onto SportsCenter wasn’t what caught my eye. What made my jaw drop was the following:

“Smith’s increased inclusion on the pre-prime time SportsCenters comes at a time when the 6 p.m. show has been keying on delivering fans up-to-the-minute news, previews and analysis of the night’s slate of games and events.

April’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter averaged 526,000 viewers, a nine percent rise over the 483,000 average for April of 2017. The growth for April followed a four percent year-over-year rise in viewership for March.

“The 6 p.m. SportsCenter has focused on including breaking news as well as an emphasis on ‘setting the table’ for the night in sports,” said David Roberts, ESPN vice president, network content, who oversees SportsCenter’s 6 p.m. program. “The response from viewers has been fantastic, as April’s increases indicated an appetite for coverage of the biggest stories in sports, such as: the Masters, the NBA and NHL playoffs, the return of MLB to Puerto Rico and the lead-up to the NFL Draft. During the playoffs, the show takes on even greater importance in informing fans.”

SportsCenter ratings for the most part, and specifically the 6 p.m. edition, have been trending downward for a while. There are a whole lot of reasons and explanations for this that sports media observers have discussed frequently and will continue to do so.

Basically, ESPN is very thirsty for positive stories about SportsCenter and there rarely is any low-hanging fruit. They’ve definitely talked up SVP’s SC, how it’s doing well on digital platforms and new versions or launching on new platforms. But in terms of old school SportsCenter, it’s been tough for them there and the last year specifically has been pretty rough.

So, yeah. I get why ESPN would want to put this out. But as soon as I saw it, I knew how this was going to play out.  And by that, I mean a circle jerk of gleeful schadenfreude coming from a certain corner of the internet — a corner that seems to be getting louder and more crowded every time I look.

Travis, predictability, celebrated this development and then went on the standard multi-platform jerk-off session which includes his site, Twitter, Facebook Live, Periscope and, on a good day, Fox News. Those pieces of content were significantly more shared and commented on than other pieces Travis has put out recently.

When it comes to negative or controversial stories about SC6 and, more specifically, Jemele Hill, there is a significant amount of sports fans that eat it up. So much so that as soon as we saw the surprising ratings blurb, a staffer was quick to say “Our readers will love this.” They certainly did, as our writeup of the ratings news also garnered some of the highest amounts of traffic, comments, and likes for Awful Announcing this week. None of this is a surprise.

But it wasn’t just our readers. Despite Michael and Jemele having a sizable fanbase, their detractors — or at a broader level, those who think ESPN has become too liberal and too diverse — were out in full force with the news that their departure has only helped SportsCenter ratings was noted across the web and social media.

A quick note: when doing a bit of back channeling with ESPN, they were adamant that they were merely trying to draw attention to the ratings lift, yet also they see the ratings lift not being tied to hosting change but to new formats and approach.  While I get that, I’d say the show naturally has a new format and approach considering they had to make a dramatic talent change. I’d also say that you’re not going to find a lot of people who can really tell you what the “new” 6 p.m. SportsCenter is in terms of format and approach. I watch it 2-3x a week and it just seems like “old” or “normal” SportsCenter.

Everyone I spoke to both inside and outside the industry more or less confirmed that thinking in that they couldn’t really explain what the newest iteration of 6 p.m. SportsCenter is, other than it seems like a “normal” SportsCenter. I’m confident a sampling of your more media-savvy friends will yield similar results

The most basic way of looking at this is as a trade-off for ESPN. Does the positive news of the ratings lift outweigh the implication that the ratings lift can be tracked to the departure of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith? To use one of my favorite sayings, I 1000% feel the juice was not the worth the squeeze.

The first thing here is that this just doesn’t make Hill, Smith, or anyone involved with that show look good. This really accentuates the shortcomings of SC6 more than promotes anything new.  The press release was interpreted by most (and ESPN takes issue with this) “Hey, we went back to doing things the old way and guess what?! People like it more!”

It’s implied that the one variable which has changed was problematic. Michael and Jemele are basically failed New Coke and they switched back to Old Coke. It’s not like ESPN brought in a specific new host or set of hosts or rebranded the show to someone else’s SportsCenter. Nobody can really define the last few months of SportsCenter as something new.

To the larger public, it’s just “not Jemele Hill and Michael Smith anymore,” so you’re not really touting anything other than just saying “we got rid of the problem.” Worse, people have bemoaned Smith and, more specifically, Hill not being able to use this as a datapoint to say, “We were right. A blacker, hipper, younger, and more liberal flavor of SC failed and as soon as they switched it back, it was fixed.” The only real variable that changed was Michael and Jemele.

I know ESPN still thinks the world of both individuals and they aren’t sweating this at all. (I’ve heard this from multiple people within ESPN and who are close to both individuals.) But that’s how this was essentially interpreted by most I talked to yesterday outside of the Bristol bubble.

Beyond just the implications in terms of Michael and Jemele, this is now validation to the growing sliver of audience that feels the company is too liberal and too diverse, and that is specifically the reason that ESPN is seeing drops in cable subscribers and viewership. Before this, you could certainly make that case, although most industry experts would tell you that, at the very least, the cable subscriber component of that argument is bullshit.

But the reality is that we live in this new toxic ecosystem where Clay Travis cherry-picks whatever he can find and runs with any breadcrumb of anti-ESPN news he can find. Often, he’s reaching and he’ll get blowback like a tweet from last week which drew many replies like this:

But it’s not just Clay Travis and his significant amount of followers. Breitbart aggregates a lot of Clay’s content, amplifies it from there and then trickles down to a spectrum of websites you’ve probably never heard of, but still have a pretty significant social media following despite their questionable content practices.

The end result is what you see below (as a note, here is our story on this): ESPN did lose 500k subscribers last month per Nielsen, but the year before that was largely a flat year, something that is conveniently left out and not provided with context in most write-ups on political websites).

This whole entire content eco-system and audience lusts for a) bad news about ESPN and b) any bad news that can be spun into “it’s because they are too political, too black, too diverse, too female friendly.” Often, the thirstiness to sell or oversell that narrative shows the blatant intellectual dishonesty this newly created content beat employs at times. And that’s not to say that often valid points aren’t being made.

Given the growing belief (right or wrong) that ESPN has become too liberal, I just can’t under any circumstances really see the rationale for ESPN gift-wrapping a story like they did here. It’s not just one story; it’s now a legitimate piece of evidence that will be cited and shared when content hucksters and loud voices present their case that ESPN is basically a cabal of Bernie Bros failing to connect with large swaths of their audience.

This was an alley-oop to that increasingly brazen and loud segment of sports fans, and OF COURSE they dunked it. They dunked it and ran back to the opposite end of the court thumping their chest to the delight of the crowd.

Is ESPN too liberal? Is that specifically what’s one of the bigger issues affecting their business right now? Was SC6 a wise move? Did Jemele Hill overstep in her political commentary on social media? All valid questions.

But this self-inflicted PR hit gives those who have already made up their mind an easy datapoint to entirely bypass these types of conversations. It provides additional certainty to their formed opinions. This was the confirmation bias they were looking for because it’s independent data.

Whether the implications of ESPN’s perceived political leanings are real or imagined, the company has to be significantly more proactive and nimble to avoid furthering that narrative. It’s a real problem, it won’t go away and it’s certainly not going to diminish in size when their in-house PR efforts helps support that argument.

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.