The Politicization of ESPN And Sports Media

The phrase “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has been ESPN’s tagline for many years, but current controversy surrounding the ESPN brand has many in the sports entertainment industry wondering, has the sports media giant finally lost its hold as the best?

The beginning of the end began in 2012 when ESPN and Disney Media Networks (who is an 80 percent owner of ESPN) hired John Skipper to become the president and co-chairman of ESPN. Skipper has since been at the forefront of recent news headlines concerning the behavior of ESPN employee Jemele Hill. Hill, who co-hosts SportsCenter, tweeted about Donald Trump claiming that his rise to the presidency was a direct result of white supremacy in America, as well as about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, indirectly telling her followers to boycott the Cowboys and their advertisers after Jones announced his players would not be allowed to participate in national anthem protests.

Skipper and ESPN suspended Hill for two weeks, claiming it was due to “a second violation of social media policy.” ESPN also released statements saying Hill’s statements “did not represent the network’s position” and also that they “had addressed the issue with Hill.” But was ESPN really of a differing opinion as Hill concerning anthem protests and the rise of the controversial president? Skipper sent an internal memo after Hill’s suspension to ESPN employees saying that employees are allowed to discuss political matters publicly, but they must do so following the company’s social media guidelines.

These guidelines warn employees on political commentary, asking that they are limited to topics “related to a current issue impacting sports” which therefore means Hill’s tweets about the president were a violation of company policy. ESPN also now requires employees to ask a supervisor prior to posting anything on social media regarding political views or commentary. So now the question comes: At what point should ESPN limit its employees and its brand from talking politics as a sports brand?

In today’s age, there is no escaping the talk about politics in sports. While NFL anthem protests continue as a means to challenge police brutality as well as Donald Trump, ESPN will have to include talking politics. Yet, there is no need for them to include politics and their views in everything they produce. Consumers want to see highlights of last night’s football game or hear analysis on whatever is going on in the sports world. Many want “the old ESPN” where Stuart Scott could be heard nightly yelling one of his catchphrases over a highlight reel.

Yet if ESPN continues to intertwine politics with sports on a daily basis, consumers will change how they consume sports. In just the last five years, ESPN has lost 10 million subscribers (Nielsen Media Research) and more subscribers continue to move towards brands like Barstool Sports and Clay Travis’ Outkick the Coverage. These brands are the anti-ESPN, who build their coverage knowing that consumers are sick of political talk and just want to get their sports updates. Barstool has even gained traction in the last month due to ESPN’s mismanagement of programming, mainly due to a partnership between the two brands that was doomed from the start.

Barstool Van Talk was a late night show on ESPN2 hosted by two popular Barstool personalities, Dan Katz (known better as Big Cat) and PFT Commenter. ESPN agreed to let two of Barstool’s most popular personalities be the stars of the show, hoping they could draw viewers in the 18-25 year old range, the demographic that Big Cat and PFT’s popular podcast Pardon My Take attracts. However, the show aired its premiere episode and got abruptly canceled before it could air its second episode. Once again, John Skipper made headlines after announcing the cancellation of the show claiming “I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content.” Did Skipper truly think that Barstool, whose main target audience consists of college-aged kids, would change its content because they were broadcasting a show on a rival network? Probably not, but it was an interesting way to put things, as the show did well for its 2 AM time slot and the reception for the show was generally well-liked.

However, it came out that ESPN personality Sam Ponder put pressure on ESPN executives to get rid of the show. Ponder conveniently tweeted right around the time of the show’s premiere, linking an old Barstool article written by Barstool’s founder Dave Portnoy, one that referenced rather graphic and lewd language about Ponder. However, Ponder incorrectly credited the article to Big Cat. In no way was what Portnoy wrote acceptable, but it was rather apparent that Ponder wanted to refuel a feud from 2014, causing the controversial article to resurface as Barstool personalities took over ESPN airwaves. Once again, ESPN took over using what some called “PC culture” and wouldn’t allow two of Barstool’s least controversial employees to potentially advance ESPN to a higher level.

At this point, it is clear that ESPN’s brand is failing as the numbers outline its decline as the “worldwide leader in sports” and at some point, people like John Skipper will have to take a step back and look at what changes need to be made within the company to try and return to its premier status.