Can Sports Pioneer Gone Progressive ESPN Resuscitate Its Free-Falling Ratings?
For the last few years, ESPN has been trying to settle a different score. And unfortunately for viewers, it has nothing to do with sports. The network, whose profits are bleeding more than Curt Shilling’s sock, is sinking under the weight of its liberal politics — and fast. Ratings are deflating faster than New England’s footballs, as a huge chunk of viewers tune out the one-time king of sports.
Now, with viewership down 16 percent in the first four months of 2017 (32 percent for ESPN 2!), executives are scrambling to climb out of the hole dug by their activism. Pitching politics instead of baseball has been a costly decision for the company, which has been a financial drag on parent company Disney. Left without viewers (or options), ESPN decided to downsize, laying off at least 100 staffers to try and make up some of the company’s losses. Of course, the irony is that ESPN didn’t scale back the political side of the network. It cut employees whose job was actually sports.
Well, the network had better learn its lesson about picking teams in the culture wars or the half-million subscribers (621,000) fleeing ESPN after the Colin Kaepernick controversy will be just the beginning. Like us, most of them are sick of the network’s bait-and-switch. They click over for baseball and get pitched politics instead. You shouldn’t have to be a broadcasting genius to understand that if viewers wanted MSNBC, they’d turn there! Instead, executives keep force-feeding their lopsided views on fans who don’t want their sports channels picking teams. “They think going Left-wing will save them,” Clay Thomas writes. “The reality is the opposite. ESPN going to Left-wing was like giving a drowning person a big rock to hold and thinking it would keep them from drowning. Instead, it just made them sink even faster.”
Viewers want to be entertained, not offended. Over at the Federalist, Sean Davis talks about how unwelcome this ideological intrusion has been.
“An obsession with politics didn’t doom ESPN, but it’s going to make it extremely difficult for ESPN to dig itself out… People in this business know you have to pick a side. That works in political news. It doesn’t work if you have a bipartisan mass media audience… ESPN ended up communicating to half its audience that it didn’t respect them. How? By committing itself entirely — not to political news, but to unceasing Left-wing political commentary. You want to watch the Lakers game? Okay, but first you’re going to hear about Caitlyn Jenner. Want some NFL highlights? We’ll get to those eventually, but coming up next will be a discussion about how North Carolina is run by racist, homophobic bigots.”
Forget Michael Sam — or even Uncle Sam! The only rivalries fans care about are on the field, not on the Hill. “America is politicized enough already,” Davis goes on, “and if its citizens want political news, several cable outlets do political news far better than ESPN ever could. Instead of doing sports and politics poorly, perhaps the network could return to the thing that it used to do better than everyone else: cover live sports.” When only three percent of Americans think your network leans conservative (and 60 percent say liberal), your brand’s in trouble.
In the meantime, the ACC, NCAA, NFL, and NBA should be watching ESPN’s implosion like hawks. With losses in the millions, it’s pretty clear now that the company is paying for its radical agenda. The NBA and NCAA had a taste of that pain in ticket sales when it pulled out of a state with common-sense privacy laws. If they pick sides, you can rest assured — so will fans.
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