The Corner

Culture

ESPN Layoffs Should Be a Wake-Up Call about Politicizing Sports

Today’s big media news is cable sports “Worldwide Leader” ESPN laying off 100 people, many of them on-air talent and sportswriters. Early indications are that the layoffs come across the sports the network covers, but will fall hardest on the network’s hockey coverage, which may be all but eliminated. There’s both a business lesson and a political lesson here.

Clay Travis at Outkick the Coverage has been all over this story for years, explaining the business problem — ESPN’s business model is disproportionately based on subscriber fees, and as more cable subscribers get the option to unbundle channels they don’t want, ESPN takes direct hits to its bottom line from its plummeting number of subscribers. Because ESPN’s broadcasting contracts are themselves the source of a huge amount of revenue for the sports leagues (especially the NBA), that means that sooner or later the economic losses to the channel will affect the bottom line of the athletes and team owners, too. We are probably a long way away from seeing the end of the implications of this for the business of sports.

Travis today notes the political lesson that ties into this:

The people being fired at ESPN today aren’t being fired because they are bad at their jobs, they’re being fired because ESPN’s business is collapsing. That collapse has been aided by ESPN’s absurd decision to turn into MSESPN, a left wing sports network, but that’s more a symptom of the collapse than it is a cause of the collapse. ESPN’s business is collapsing and the network is desperately trying to find a way to stay above water. You know how a drowning person flails in the water before slipping under? ESPN’s left wing shift is that flailing. They think going left wing will save them. The reality is the opposite, ESPN going 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.

That’s why ratings are down 16% this year compared to last year and viewers are abandoning the network in droves.

Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football. ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.

This is why “stick to sports” is not just good manners for sports journalism, it’s good business advice. (A March poll of sports media consumers found that 60 percent of respondents thought ESPN leaned left politically, as opposed to 3 percent who thought it leaned right.) Yes, there are times when you can’t avoid the political implications of what happens on the field, or the sports implications of what happens in politics. Jackie Robinson really did change the country, not just baseball, by playing Major League Baseball. And yes, if you drill down deep enough, there are embedded political assumptions in everything. Some of those embedded assumptions are broadly shared by all but a small fringe, like respect for the American flag, the national anthem, and other symbols of shared American identity and values, to the point where a statement against them really is more visibly partisan and ideological than a general affirmation of them. But political assumptions that are barely even visible to people who don’t spend 24/7 politically “woke” do not feel, to the average viewer, like political content, and should not be used as a lever to launch coverage of divisive hot-button issues into sports coverage. As Peggy Noonan noted about the CBS News culture she worked in many years ago, Edward R. Murrow once said of the Holocaust that some issues just don’t have two sides — but not every issue is the Holocaust, and acting like they are is a sign that you’ve lost so much perspective, you just can’t even speak your audience’s language anymore.

Fundamentally, people watch sports as an escape from less entertaining aspects of life, from politics to business. Sports isn’t a university, whose job is to instruct and open minds, and it isn’t a church, whose job is to save souls. It was Earl Warren, a man whose life was nothing if not consumed with hot-button political issues, who once said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.” For my own part, back when I was writing a baseball blog, I tried hard to keep the sports and politics content separate, so people who came for the former could bypass the latter (admittedly, nobody does this on Twitter, and my writing is mostly politics these days anyway). The more you import politics into the spaces people reserve to crack open a beer at the end of the day and enjoy a ballgame, the more apt they are to look for something else to watch that is not full of man’s failures.

ESPN’s layoffs demonstrate that the network understands it has a business problem. It’s too soon to tell if it also understands it has a politics problem (certainly eliminating hockey coverage, maybe the least political area of the 21st-century sports world despite the international origins of its players, won’t fix that). But its business model allows subscribers to vote with their feet in a way that has an immediate bottom-line impact. Maybe it should start listening.

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