ESPN and Politics

espnESPN laid off more than 100 staffers yesterday, ranging from SportsCenter anchors to frontline reporters. Here is a running list of those who lost their jobs. The internet, to put it mildly, was interested. #ESPN was trending on Twitter yesterday. SI.Com ran two stories on the layoffs, including a behind-the-scenes view of what happened and how the news was received. Clay Travis, of Outkick the Coverage, has covered this story and predicted these results for some time. His write-up is essential for those who want to understand what is happening.

Interestingly, right-leaning outlets used the opportunity to pounce on ESPN. Dan McGlauglin at NRO warned the layoffs were the natural result of the over-politicization of sports. The Federalist’s Sean Davis provides a good overview of the business reasons behind the layoffs (the network paid far too much for broadcast rights just as cord-cutting started to gain steam), but he also paints politics as one explanation for what is happening. He notes that ESPN tried to recapture some ratings by appealing to a larger segment of the broadcast pie–political news junkies. The thinking, according to his source at ESPN, was that by adding political viewers to sports viewers, the network could grow in the face of cord-cutting. The result:

Instead of expanding its pie by combining two types of mass media content, 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.

Basically, the argument goes, by tacking left on political and social issues that did arise in the context of sports, ESPN alienated too many sports fans. Instead of covering Michael Sam as a marginal football player, it painted him as heroic. By awarding Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, ESPN took a position in the culture wars.

There is probably some truth to this. Most people tune into sports as an escape, not as another avenue for confronting hard realities. Also, ESPN took firmly progressive stances and rarely offered contrasting voices on those hot-button issues. At the same time, I am not sure ESPN could necessarily ignore Michael Sam, Caitlyn Jenner, or Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel down during the Star Spangled Banner. There are moments where sports gets entangled with politics. When football players are involved in significant domestic violence events, it is right and appropriate for sports outlets to weigh in on the problem.

Weighing in, though, is far different from taking predictable, blunt, and often witless positions on complicated concerns. While ESPN is letting go of straight reporters like Ed Werder, it is hanging onto bombastic barkers like Stephen A. Smith. CNN and Fox News struggle to do excellent coverage of multi-faceted social problems like race relations, poverty, and violence. The fact ESPN often botches such matters should come as no surprise.

14 thoughts on “ESPN and Politics”

  1. I’m not surprised, and I’m not disappointed. I’m one of those that doesn’t watch much sports anymore, for a wide variety of reasons. But one of my biggest disappointments of the left is the increasing politicization of everything. Can’t I just watch a game and relax and escape from a bit? Since ESPN won’t let me, I’ll skip the game on Saturday and go out to my shop and work on my hot rod. And obviously I’m not alone.

  2. It is revealing to see who ESPN let go (actual talent), and who they kept on the roster (entertainers). To a degree, I think this shows where their priorities lie. I appreciate the distinction you make between covering these mixtures of sports and politics and taking a side on the issue, and I would hope that ESPN figures this out eventually. The steps to fix this problem are fairly simple to state, but it requires someone with the fortitude to take action. For example, ESPN could have shafted FiveThirtyEight in part or in whole, yet they dared not to even touch that section. I don’t have major problems with FiveThirtyEight, but a large chunk of their work is political by nature, and ESPN could have depoliticized right there. Time will tell if this shakeup eventually straightens some heads.

  3. I agree. Sports has become way too politicized. Although, since most major teams are in the big metropolitan areas where the population is overwhelmingly liberal, I am not surprised by ESPN’s leftward drift. But if ESPN wants to cover the non-sports related activities of athletes, there is plenty to cover that is not overtly political. Many athletes contribute greatly to their communities in many various ways deserving of acknowledgement that have little to do with partisan politics.

    But yes, when people watch sports, they do so as an “as an escape, not as another avenue for confronting hard realities”. And you are right. When the major news networks struggle to cover complicated issues, no surprise ESPN fumbles it.

    I will note one small area of disagreement. I actually kinda like Stephen A. Smith. I agree he is bombastic and barking but at least he says what he thinks without trying to be overtly politically correct about it. But that’s just my personal opinion. I can see where you are coming from on that. :)

  4. I found this article to be extremely interesting. I enjoyed reading about it because it was all over social media but I did not know a lot about it. I agree that ESPN is an escape for sports fans to watch something relaxing and not want to hear about more opinionated politics. However, ESPN is in a difficult situation because when athletes are involved social and political events it is almost impossible and irrational for them not to discuss the issues.

  5. The Federalist essay contains NO evidence that a reason why viewers are leaving ESPN is because of an “obsession” with left-wing politics (whatever that term means), other than the author’s discussion with an unnamed “industry insider” (whatever that term means).

    Whatever happened to essays that are based on evidence? The essay reminds me of the very personalities that have turned me off to ESPN. All talk, no substance.

    Fact is, the data tend to suggest that TV viewership is dropping like a rock, regardless of the content. My teenagers do not even watch TV. They play with their phones, play games, and borrow my laptop. They like Netflix, but that really does not count as television.

    I cut the cable cord myself. Sling gets me enough sports and saves me enough money to help pay for half of my new car. Yes, it is a Hyundai, but it gets great gas mileage, so don’t knock it. Apparently, according to the data, I am not alone.

    And as for ESPN being some kind of liberal bastion because it covered Michael Sam (the first openly gay NFL player) and discusses NC politics (which might have cost Duke a shot at the Sweet Sixteen after being forced to play South Carolina in what was essentially a home game for the Gamecocks).
    Remember, this was the network that hired Rush Limbaugh (before his racist comments regarding Donovan McNabb) and “comedian” Dennis Miller (after he ceased being funny).

    ESPN a left-wing bastion? Unlike Dennis Miller, THAT’s funny!

    1. Jeff–good to hear from you.

      Limbaugh was hired in 2003. Dennis Miller was hired by ABC in 2000. Have any examples from this decade? I don’t watch ESPN much at all–in fact, I only get Sling or something like it for college football season–but the network’s coverage of social and political issues has been left leaning. There is really no dispute about that. In fact, the company issued a memorandum recently that gave guidelines for dealing with political issues. The new guidelines require balance.

      Also, the ESPN ombudsman responded to the perceived leftward shift on the network here:

      That report features this quote from Bob Ley, a stalwart of the network:

      Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem.

      “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.”

      1. Still not impressed. Indeed, I am disappointed that you have not thought this out thoroughly.

        I think you are confusing “political philosophy” with something else. There is a major difference between being conservative and saying mean-spirited, even hate-filled, things about others.

        Conservatives are not workplace disasters in the making. Big mouth bigots are.

        There is a difference, I think (I hope!).

        When ESPN fired Curt Schilling, it was not about politics. Employed by ESPN for years, he was free to say about anything he wanted–and did. He crossed the line when he referred to Muslims as Nazis on social media. What kind of business wants to have such a loose cannon around? The last thing a company needs is to have a group of people (Muslims) file a lawsuit claiming a hostile workplace environment.

        If you don’t believe me, look at Fox News and the mess there. Lawsuits galore coming, it would seem.

        The college football corps has had plenty of conservatives. Lou Holtz, an ardent conservative, was arguably the most popular college football personality until he retired a few years ago. And he regularly spoke about conservatism. He did not get in trouble until he said some positive words about Hitler’s leadership qualities.

        It is sad that when treating people, even people with different sexual orientation, with humanity and decency is a “left wing” position. It is even sadder that prejudice becomes the “conservative” position. Such a trend seems to further support what I see as the slow death of conservatism. What do conservatives stand for any longer, except cult of personality and denigration of women, liberals, Muslims, immigrants, atheists, etc?


        One more thing: the link to the Federalist blog spoke of an “obsession with politics.” Your evidence does little if nothing to support that position. “Obsession” is a pretty strident word.

  6. Mr. Adams must think that readers of this post won’t review the article linked to support Dr. Smith’s observation.

    The Federalist, though a right leaning news outlet is even handed in the article’s assessment of ESPN’s woes.

    They note four reasons for their failure to be profitable and recent layoffs:

    “ESPN isn’t struggling because of one thing. It’s struggling because of a bunch of different things happening simultaneously. Some are outside of its control, and some are not. Here are the big reasons for these mass layoffs.”

    1. Overpaying for Broadcast Rights
    Basis = Fact ($) Opinion(Value)
    Control – Under ESPN’s Control
    2. Cable Cord Cutting
    Basis = Fact
    Control – Not Under ESPN’s Control
    3. Declining ESPN Ratings
    Basis = Fact
    Control – Symptomatic
    4. Politics
    Basis = Opinion
    Control – Under ESPN’s Control

    Feelings and Opinions aren’t facts. Fair enough.

    But, anyone who suggests ESPN has tacked any direction but left, needs to recalibrate their political GPS.

    Could this be a factor? Of course.

  7. From a marketing standpoint, this article is great! I personally watch zero cable television except HGTV when I’m home, so I cannot personally confirm ESPN’s news coverage. Based on what you said, though, it sounds like ESPN doesn’t know its mission focus. One would think a big company like ESPN would stick to its mantra to uphold its reputation long term, yet this is just another example of a brand that has swayed from its focus. If a brand doesn’t stick to its mission, or know its target audience well, it WILL suffer!

  8. Another person inside ESPN acknowledges that politics played a role in recent reductions:

    “Longtime ESPN anchor Linda Cohn believes the network’s embrace of political issues is at least partially to blame for falling subscription rates.

    “That is definitely a percentage of it,” Cohn said, when asked Thursday on New York radio show “Bernie and Sid” if viewers were tuning out because of politics, according to the New York Post. ‘I don’t know how big a percentage, but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.'”

  9. Good article that emphasizes how little media actually know about their target audiences.
    I remember how sports fans thought Meryl Steep’s liberal comments at the Golden Globes about people who watch football and mma were ridiculous. Ironic that ESPN would adopt her kind of leftward leaning politics, and try to incorporate them into football and mma.

  10. If they paid too much, how come they didn’t have the layoffs a while ago? Or how come they haven’t reduced wages and not keep hiring?

  11. Another ESPN insider points the finger at the content of ESPN’s programming as a major contributor to their woes.

    ESPN alumn, Jason Whitlock in a May 7th Wall Street Journal Op Ed writes:

    “ESPN chose to acquiesce and adopt progressive ideology and diversity as groundbreaking business innovations. ESPN is the exact network Deadspin desired. It’s diverse on its surface, progressive in its point of view, and more concerned with spinning media narratives than with the quality of its product.”

  12. It would be helpful if (Christian) conservatives could decide whether they’re a) an oppressed minority victimized by a toxic culture averse to their values or b) an insurgent demographic force whose collective will can call too-political business/cultural interests to heel. Confirmation-bias is a cruel and enigmatic master.

    Relatedly, Profs. Smith & Haymond, I’m confused as to how any thoughtful social scientist can seriously contemplate sports (or entertainment) as relatively less “political” than other spheres of public life. In an American sports landscape of publicly subsidized stadiums, pervasive corporate sponsorship, and athletes as advertising pitchmen, what exactly seems apolitical to you? When you’re watching college football, do the chasms of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic difference that separate donors, fans, and the athletes on the field strike you as mere happenstance?

    I’ve no doubt many viewers would prefer to consume a sports product that elides the implicit nature of the messy world it’s immersed in. But that product is as much a political construction as any “over-politicized” take ESPN could muster. There’s no doubt ESPN can be shrill and witless at times, but it can also be cogent and revelatory ( While you’re calling out the former, you might take some cues from the latter.

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