ESPN 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.