As American politics become more and more polarized and social issues more persistently bleed into sports, viewers seem to be looking at ESPN through a political lens like never before. Over the last few years, many viewers have begun to label ESPN as liberal or left-leaning (sometimes contrasted with the right-leaning FS1), an idea fueled by everything from the network’s coverage of gay NFL hopeful Michael Sam to its treatment of avowed right-winger Curt Schilling.
And if there was any doubt that the image of ESPN as liberal had made it mainstream, a recent survey by sports media analyst Jason Barrett seems to confirm it.
A lot of the “ESPN is too liberal” sentiment surely has to do with which voices the network chooses to amplify. ESPN has clearly made an effort in recent years to let women and people of color share their opinions outside of the Xs and Os studio show format. After years of ESPN personalities defending management and espousing personal responsibility (which are conservative perspectives, whether you think of them that way or not), the network is giving the Bomani Jones and Jemele Hills of the world a bigger platform, and not everyone is thrilled.
So it should be no surprise that fans in Barrett’s survey also didn’t love the current crop of ESPN talent, with 40.6 percent of respondents labelling them, “underwhelming” and another 19.1 percent replying, “terrible.”
Along those lines, fans don’t seem impressed with ESPN introducing more personality into its SportsCenter shows, most notably through Scott Van Pelt’s midnight edition and Hill and Michael Smith’s SC6. In Barrett’s survey, 49.3 percent of fans responded either “not my style” or “can’t stand it,” when asked about personality-based SportsCenters, compared to 29.6 percent for “it’s fine” and “excellent.”
Barrett’s survey—which we should again point out was unscientific—showed a pretty widespread dissatisfaction with ESPN’s general direction. For example, 46 percent of respondents said they “no longer enjoy and support” the network’s programming as much as previously. On a different question, 52.5 percent of respondents said they “watch occasionally but have lost interest,” while another 17.4 percent said they “no longer watch” ESPN programming.
Some of this could certainly be selection bias or romanticization of ye olden days, but it sure seems like ESPN has a PR problem. Even if these people still watch the network as much as they used to, it’s not great for ESPN if they do so begrudgingly, while resenting the programming.
It’s worth noting that 63.1 percent of respondents to Barrett’s survey said debate shows are their least favorite type of ESPN programming, blowing away the seven other options. Maybe un-embracing debate could be the start of an ESPN image rehab.