I’ve got a confession to make; politics isn’t my first love, sports is. I absolutely love them. Growing up playing sports was practically mandatory in my house. Saturday’s would be spent with my dad driving me from soccer, to hockey, and lacrosse; while my mom would do the same for my little sister. When I wasn’t playing sports, I was watching ESPN; starting my day with Dan Patrick and Sportscenter was part of my routine. ESPN was integral to shaping my identity. Which is why it’s painful to see what it has become; an unapologetically political network. Released by ESPN’s Public Editor Jim Brady during the Men’s National Basketball Championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga, the new company policy on politics, encourages hosts to make the connection between political and social issues on their shows, giving them the discretion to be as political as they want.
Today ESPN is essentially MSNBC with Lebron James; and it’s killing them. By the end of June, ESPN will have shed $100 million in salary in an attempt to firm up their bottom line, a bottom line that is bloated by expensive broadcasting contracts. ESPN committed $15.2 billion to the NFL over an 8 year period back in 2011; another $12 billion went to the NBA, while they won the right to broadcast the College Football Playoffs for a cool $7.3 billion. Having over $34 billion in financial commitments while seeing a 27% drop in ratings since 2010 cannot be a sustainable business model, yet, actions by the “worldwide leader in sports” doesn’t seem to suggest they see a correlation between declining ratings and their new political identity. Instead, ESPN’s management points out that ratings are down at every station, management suggests that as more people cancel their cable subscriptions, ratings will suffer. While this may be true, the evidence suggests that this is only part of the reason for the decline.
The numbers show paint a different picture. In February 2011, at its height, ESPN appeared in over 100 million homes, while ESPN2 appeared in 99.9 million homes. In a sign of things to come, also in 2011, progressive “sports” writer and radio show host, Dan Le Batard had his show “Highly Questionable” premiere; he was joined by co-host Bomani Jones, an even more progressive voice, two years later in 2013. Today, both Le Batard and Jones host nationally syndicated radio shows where they discuss cultural, society, and race in sports. All of which are fine topics, but, as a study from media analytics firm “Deep Root Analytics” recently shows, sports fans skew republican, and devoting a minimum of 6 hours of radio time a day to social justice warriors alienates their largest demographic. Coincidentally, it has been all downhill, from a ratings perspective, since February 2011, culminating with the company’s worst month coming in November of 2016, when ESPN lost 600,000 subscribers. As of December 2016, that 100 million subscribers had dwindled to ESPN appearing in 88.4 million. ESPN, for their part, blamed low ratings in 2016 on the presidential election; which, in all fairness, may have some truth to it; after November’s election ratings did improve, slightly.
ESPN’s attempts to create a greater political dialogue in this country would be more tolerable if they, as a company, didn’t at least openly take sides. In July 2015, ESPN moved a golf tournament from “Trump National Golf Course” after a then candidate Donald Trump made controversial comments about Mexican immigrants. It would be even more tolerable, still, if they didn’t have openly biased opinions towards those who may have different political views than their own. Current “Sportscenter” anchor Jemele Hill, while speaking about former colleague Curt Schilling (who was fired by the company after a
social media post showing a man dressed as a woman demanding to be allowed in the women’s bathroom, appeared) said:
“ESPN is in an uncomfortable position,” “They don’t want to suppress anyone’s beliefs, but some would say, ‘You can say that, but Curt Schilling got fired.’ But the values Curt Schilling was trying to promote didn’t line up with what ESPN wants to be as a company.”
The problem, of course, is that right or wrong, many people share Curt Schilling’s belief when it comes to who can use what bathroom. And the ideological bias wasn’t just directed at white men, long time “NBA Countdown” host Sage Steele, an African American woman, was demoted the day after ESPN announced it’s new guidelines relating to sports and politics. Sage Steele had been the studio host for ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” was given a more limited role. Steele, a slightly more conservative voice, was famous (at least politically speaking) for saying:
“There are times that I believe that we, as African-Americans, can be hypocritical, and that is to not look ourselves in the mirror when we are saying certain things and blaming other groups for one thing when we are doing the exact same thing. The worst racism that I have received, and I mean thousands and thousands over the years, is from black people, who in my mind I thought would be the most accepting because there has been that experience. But even as recent as the last couple of weeks, the words that I have had thrown at me I can’t repeat here and it’s 99 percent from people with my skin color. But if a white person said those words to me, what would happen?”
African American culture magazine “The Root” wrote an article highlighting the happy responses from progressives, the next day.
The ideological bias within ESPN is so extreme even employees are starting to notice;
“We’ve done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
Ryen Russillo, who has hosted a nationally syndicated radio show on ESPN for years, took it a step further:
“I feel like there’s so many people that I work with, that every show, every topic, every angle on it is hoping to be right about destroying the right on every single thing that comes up. And I don’t even feel like I’m taking that much of a stance other than I feel like I just — I hear it every single day. I don’t know what the job is anymore.
I got into sports because I want to talk about sports, and now I feel like if I’m not doing a social awareness show three out of five days a week I feel like I’m doing it wrong. I can’t possibly think that’s the play, long-term, for what I’m supposed to do as a sports talk show host for the next 10 years.”
Ryen Russillo, has, in recent months, seen a mild reduction in his role at the company. First, his show “Russillo and Kanell” was moved from standard “ESPN Radio” to ESPN’s “secondary” radio network, “ESPN Xtra,” for the first two hours of its broadcast three hour broadcast, in order to accommodate the “Stephen A. Smith Show.” Then, Danny Kanell, his co-host on “Russillo and Kanell,” was a victim of ESPN’s layoffs. The moves may have nothing to do with politics, but as a “sports first” radio host who rarely talks about politics or social issues, it was interesting to see his show get replaced with the loudly progressive “Stephen A. Smith Show.”
So what could be driving such a leftward turn? One possibility could be Bob Iger. Iger, the CEO of Disney (ESPN’s parent company) could be considering a 2020 Presidential run. Although his contract isn’t up until July 2019, “The Hollywood Reporter” reports that the Disney billionaire has been encouraged by friends and family to seek public office, and that he has recently met with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg about transitioning from a CEO, to holding office.
If he is considering running for President in 2020, the Democrat was likely encouraged by seeing fellow billionaire Donald Trump, whose advisory team he just quit (over Trump’s withdrawing from the “Paris Accords”), likely provided him with the confidence in knowing a billionaire can relate to middle America. In that case, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to think that in a few years he could point to ESPN and tell progressive America “see! See what we did at ESPN!” as a way of gaining some credit amongst the Bernie bros out there.
Whatever the reason, ESPN’s hard left turn is ruining my first love: sports.