ESPN

ESPN has become a left-wing stronghold. Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis raised that talking point. It’s a shrewd one. Going after ESPN gets you attention. Careers and websites have been built on that. It’s great for Fox Sports, ESPN’s direct competitor. It’s promotable across other News Corp media properties.

Judging from ESPN’s reaction, the political critique hit a battleship. ESPN PR refuted the claim with survey data. Perhaps coincidentally, ESPN announced the same day that Hank Williams and his rowdy, conservative friends would return to the Monday Night Football fold. (We can all be wistful for 2011 when there was a pale and likening a politician you disagreed with to Hitler went beyond it.)

There is truth in the liberal claim. ESPN has tilted leftward under John Skipper. The network co-hosted a town hall on race and policing with Barack Obama (back in 2008, ESPN blocked Bill Simmons from having him on a podcast because it was political). The ESPYs attempted poignant statements on LGBTQ issues and gun violence. ESPN created a niche site, the Undefeated, to address racial and cultural issues (first edited by Jason Whitlock).

ESPN’s new opinionists are less likely to be old, white, and male. They are more apt to discuss politics and culture. Particularly on social issues, they express a particular world view. More menshevik than bolshevik, if we’re making that analogy. There may be a top-down element, whether it is John Skipper’s personal beliefs or Bob Iger laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

This story gets tenuous, however, when connecting politics to the broader ESPN decline narrative. One can surmise significant numbers of aggrieved conservatives are abandoning ESPN programming. But, there’s no proof, and multiple factors are at play. What those people are not doing is getting so riled up by the ESPYs they cancel cable altogether, the major problem for ESPN’s business model. Every SEC state went for Trump. Are those fans not going to watch their football team the 90 percent of the time it is on an ESPN-affiliated network? At best, there’s a flimsy correlation (more than enough for conservative outlets to run wild with it).

Is ESPN’s leftward move the wrong decision? Determining that requires sorting out that nebulous second part of the story. The costs of going political are unclear. But, there are benefits.

The sports audience has not remained static. Politics is everywhere. It has replaced sports at metaphorical water-coolers. Things that were not political, such as declining to take a political stand, now are. Sports opinions that weren’t political now are. The sports news topics that have caught fire of late, such as Colin Kaepernick’s flag protest, are the ones that intersect with politics and social issues. ESPN “sticking to sports” runs the risk of irrelevance.

What is the audience for a straight breakdown of the chariot race results while Rome is burning? It better have been one hell of a chariot race.

Major brands, such as ESPN, are now expected to exhibit a political and social consciousness. They pay a cost when they are tone deaf. If there are now two Americas, ESPN (and sports leagues) will move with the one advertisers want to reach: young people, people with disposable income, and growing minority populations. (There’s a reason the Big Ten was scrambling to expand out of the Rust Belt.) FS1 has avoided becoming Trump Sports because those viewers who are the audience for the globalist World Cup.

One may find handwringing, woke millennials annoying and objectionable. Their values may conflict with sports culture. But ESPN is not going to survive long-term unless it reaches those viewers and gets them to watch sports. Cord-cutters are people under 30. TV watching rates among those under 20 should terrify everyone in the industry. It’s not clear ESPN’s political shift will engage those viewers, but it’s an attempt.

About Ty Duffy

Ty is a freelance writer/editor based outside Detroit. He's a Michigan Man. He enjoys dogs, whiskey, yoga, and composing pithy career summaries. Contact him at tyduffy@gmail.com.

  • sportsfan365

    The younger generation doesn’t care much for sports, so you should alienate half of the people who still do? Sorry, but no amount of green energy hype, Kardashian cleavage, or LGBT flag waving is going to get people to pay their cable companies $7.21 a month for ESPN.

  • Dale Moog

    Amen! young people do not care much about sports. I work with kids and see this every day. I think you are right the people who watch sports are 35 plus so why piss half of them off by talking politics.

  • witasickfiftyfour02

    10-2

  • IMMUTABLE

  • Jeff

    This author claims that major brands pay a cost for being “tone deaf” on social justice. I don’t know about you but having some wack-jobs on Twitter screaming about something doesn’t necessitate a cost to me. First those people do not watch sports and secondly are even less likely to buy products advertised in those slots. Just like movies that have “a lot of engagement” on social media are realizing it doesn’t mean that movie will be a success in theaters at all as those people who engage don’t end up seeing it in the end.

  • unknown1691

    “poignant statements on…gun violence” – I’ll be impressed when they comment on gun control, given that so any athletes own guns. speaking about stopping gun violence is easy, lets see them take a stand on something where people disagree. Or dig into things like public funding of stadiums (which studies show never pays off for cities) or income inequality (given that 99% of athletes are millionaires).
    Also, sports is sports. Have commentators who know their sport, it’s history, and can speak well – as opposed to people who are all hyperbole, don’t speak well don’t know the game or history, and/or can’t put things like the Warrior’s 2 out of 3 championships or some current star’s performance accurately into a historical context based.

  • Dave

    While I agree that once you take a political stance, you allienate half your audience. I still think ESPN’s problems go deeper then that.

    The obvious answer among Millenials is that they are cutting the cord, and that is changing tv because they aren’t reliable customers who pay their cable bill every month anymore.

    The 2nd problem is Gen-X sports fans who grew up with ESPN in the 80’s/90’s and are totally turned off by the networks because they dumbed down their programming. Think about it, I live and breath sports, yet I go out of my way to avoid the network at all costs. Do I really want to watch Stephen A Smith argue with someone in some manufactured topic that will end up in a screaming match? Do I really care what Keyshawn Johnson thinks? Do I really care what Ray Lewis thinks? Do I really need wasted opinions on SportsCenter when all I want is highlights?

    ESPN turned into Sports Talk Radio and I walked away years ago. I thought FS1 would fill that void but they just emulated ESPN by hiring loudmouths like Skip Bayless! Message to some national sports network, there are fans out there who enjoy highlights and solid analysis. Still waiting…….

  • Carter_Burger67

    ESPN may think it’s cool to be left wing now, but eventually advertisers are gonna see the drop in ratings and wonder if paying the outrageous money they pay to advertize on ESPN is worth it. ESPN is heading toward a perfect storm of total collapse unless they get back to their core programming philosophy.

  • davesnothere

    ESPN is increasingly becoming the NBA network, and the only difference between ESPN and the actual NBA Network is that different former NBA players are the featured talking heads. There are other sports. To ESPN, the American sports scene consists entirely of the NBA, SEC football, and the Red Sox and Yankees, but only when it’s not during the NBA or SEC seasons. And, apparently, there is no west coast in ESPN’s America.

    • Guest

      You are forgetting the NFL.

  • Hkkg Bgik

    ESPN sucks because they only talk about the NBA and left wing politics. Need more College Football

  • Blaise O’Connor

    ESPN says this, meanwhile they are losing their asses with subscribers leaving. You are a “SPORTS NETWORK”. Don’t get involved with your stupid political views. You don’t want to lose close to half of your audience, due to your political stances. And, try to talk about something other than the NBA. Much of America, could care less about the league, when at least 25 or 26 of thew 30 teams, know they have no shot of winning a title, before the season begins.

  • MrBull

    ESPN use to stand for Entertainment Sports Programming Network….
    Now it stands for – Entertainment sports Political Network…

  • bralinshan

    Ty Duffy is about as bright as ESPN…..which is not good for him. How about this solution? WHY engage in politics at all? Imagine a business that alienates 50% of America on a regular basis….cutting their potential market in HALF.
    Smart companies stick to their businesses and leave the politics to the politicians. But, ESPN was supposedly infallible and they decided that they wanted to shove their idiotic far left agenda down viewer’s throats…..then cord cutting accelerated and they permanently pissed off a TON of viewers. Soon, it will be the BET Sports Network….starring Jamele Hill and Bimani Jones! ESPN is finished.

  • SorrowfullSoros

    Awful Announcing + ESPN = the hideous announcing crew on Sunday Night Baseball.

  • This is mostly well-thought out, except for one fallacy:

    Not all Millennials are extremist SJW Progressives. SJW Progressives to the left what Social Conservatives are to the right: a minority; yes, a loud minority, but a minority just the same. There are far less of those people around, Millennial or not, who agree with an extreme SJW Progressive like Jemele Hill, than who have more centrist beliefs.

    Churchill said it best, and I’m paraphrasing here: people start off in life more liberal, and grow to be more conservative as they age.

    Given that axiom, which I believe is true, this is not a good strategy for ESPN. Eventually, even the snowflake unicorn garbage babies are going to grow up. Then what will ESPN do?

    • Tookie Clothespin

      I agree with most of what you have to say. The only thing I would question is what you would consider SJW beliefs and what would be centrist beliefs. I’m in my late 30’s and recently graduated from a pretty conservative college and all my time there I was kind of amazed at how conservative all of the 18-22 year olds were when it came to gun control and taxes and welfare issues. But, they were very overwhelmingly liberal when it came to LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter and other social issues. So, all of the issues that ESPN is considered to be driving all of the conservatives away by covering, in my experience, millenials go hard left on and agree with what’s being said on ESPN. But, they didn’t really view it as being on hard left on the issues. They didn’t really see their views as political. They saw it as just kind of the way things are. The sky is blue, the grass is green, LGBTQ should have equal rights.

  • Jon

    As long as ESPN holds the lion’s share of the cable live sports contracts, ESPN can probably get away with filling the non-live sports part of the broadcast hours with shows that tilt the way ESPN or Disney’s execs would prefer them to tilt. Unless fans are willing to abandon their teams or sports entirely, ESPN will still have them periodically coming back to the table.

    It’s when those contracts start lapsing that the network will face its biggest threat. Both Fox Sports and NBC Sports Network are likely to be competitive bidders, and as streaming video grows, there will be more and more media properties also joining the mix (AT&T’s ownership of Yahoo.com, DirecTV and their planned rebranding of ROOT as AT&T SportsNet points towards another future multimedia competitor for major sports contracts). The less live programming ESPN has and the more it has to rely on its format shows to drive ratings, the more the loss of goodwill among 50 percent of the population will become a ratings negative for the Worldwide Leader in Sports, especially those shows where the hosts seem absolutely bored talking about the games themselves and only brighten up when they can talk about the politics around the games (a problem that’s actually worse on ESPN Radio than it is on TV).

  • Chicken Little was a Liberal

    People will tire of being forced to pay for 20 a month for ESPN and will demand unbundled cable or pull the plug.
    The entire sports world is being propped up by the extortion of fees from cable customers. What can’t last forever , wont

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  • James Smith

    Good idea.

    Alienate the audience you you have for the demographic that doesn’t watch cable lol

  • CreightonRabs

    Stupidest. Column. Ever.

  • bibliomaine

    So, to recap. A Left-leaning sports journo site (AA) endorses left-leaning ESPN. And the circle is unbroken.

    • TheOriginalDonald

      Meanwhile FS1 is still in the toilet ratingswise

  • BobLee Says

    IMO, the audience for College FB GameDay and the Saturday CFB games will not change much. How many no-lifers of indeterminate demographics watch ESPN’s M-F daytime programming is a question. WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE? Scary! …. I’m a Baby Boomer and will only watch ESPN for CFB. … FWIW I don’t watch FS1 either.