Being ESPN Means Never Having to Say Sorry

Sports have always been political. It's OK to stop pretending.

It’s almost possible to feel sorry for ESPN lately. Everything it does is cause for outrage. In February, when the network made a staffing change in its 6 p.m. weekday slot, it did not seem like a move that would lead to nationwide controversy and the President of the United States demanding an apology. But here we are. Last Friday, between proclamations on fighting ISIS and immigration policy, President Trump tweeted this:

Trump did not mention Jemele Hill, but the implication was clear. Hill, along with Michael Smith, is the co-host of the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter. In a series of tweets last week, she had called Trump “a white supremacist,” “ignorant,” and “unfit to be president.” This sparked a backlash, which prompted ESPN to issue a statement saying that her views did not represent the network’s and that she recognized that “her actions were inappropriate.” The next day, during a White House press conference, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill’s comments a “fireable offense.” Trump’s outburst came two days later.    

Hill and Smith took over the 6 p.m. SportsCenter slot in February, becoming the show’s first black anchor team. The move was part of a broader attempt to shift the 38-year-old franchise from a comprehensive highlight package to something more conversational. To help signal the change, ESPN rebranded the hour as SC6 or The Six. The strategy is straightforward enough: The network wants to appeal to more black viewers and to address better an audience that gets its scores and news from social media. For some, however, the new show represented something more sinister—the tearing down of yet another beloved American institution at the hands of elitist liberals.

In May, when ESPN announced its full weekday schedule for the coming year, Breitbart, a right-wing news site run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, greeted the news thusly: “No Social Justice Warrior Left Behind: ESPN Unveils New Lineup and It’s as Bad as You Thought.” In this version of events, SC6 is further evidence of a leftward lurch at ESPN that has alienated middle-American viewers. When Trump posits politics as the root of the network’s decline, he is, not for the first time, borrowing a page from Breitbart. He is also, not for the first time, way off the mark. 

ESPN has real problems with its business. Since its peak in May of 2011, the network has lost more than 12 million subscribers, falling from more than 100 million to fewer than 88 million, according to Nielsen. The losses have indeed hit a record pace in the past year. A close observer, however, will notice that the decline began six years ago, before Trump took office, before Hill and Smith got the six-o’clock gig, before ESPN gave an award to Caitlyn Jenner, before Colin Kaepernick sat down, and, by several months, before the network dropped Hank Williams Jr. from its Monday Night Football broadcasts for calling President Obama “the enemy.” The trouble began well before most of things that critics on the right point to as causing it. 

ESPN has indeed diversified the ranks of its on-air personalities of late. Along with Hill and Smith, it has given more prominent roles to Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre. Last year, it moved Jessica Mendoza to the booth for its Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts and, earlier this month, made Beth Mowins the first woman to call a Monday Night Football game. The network has also freed its talking heads, at least a little, to talk about culture more broadly and not “stick to sports.” These changes, in as much as they have anything to do with subscriber losses, are a response to them, not their cause. 

Below is a chart, courtesy of Matthew Ball, head of strategy at Amazon Studios, showing the decline in pay-TV consumption by age group since 2010. Among young people, it is precipitous, 47 percent for viewers aged 12 to 24:

This is the source of the trouble for ESPN and for every other cable network. ESPN has the biggest problem because it has the most to lose. Carriers pay $7.54 per subscriber per month for its namesake channel, according to S&P’s media research arm Kagan. This is, far and away, the most in basic cable. The second-place channel, TNT, charges $2.02. (If Apple had this kind of pricing power over its competition, it would be charging $3,500 for iPhones.)   

ESPN’s vulnerability and strength can be described in the same sentence: Cable bundles are expensive and hard to ditch. This is why young people are not signing up for them at the same rate as their parents. It’s also why ESPN doesn’t need to worry about losing customers over the political opinions of its studio show personalities. Nobody buys ESPN by itself. And nobody drops it without dropping at least a few other channels. People who want to watch college football and the NFL, which are fairly popular in the states where Trump did best, are probably going to keep the channel in their pay-TV bundles no matter what Hill tweets.

The number of people who tune in for SC6, or any of the rest of the studio shows, matters only marginally. Are some people turned off by Hill? Yes. Do others tune in because of her? Yes. Is the net effect up or down? Hard to say. The ratings for her first appearance after the controversy began were up slightly. (Ratings at the network as a whole have been trending up for the past two months compared with last year, according to Nielsen.) The viewers whom Hill attracts are probably more important to the network’s long-term health than those she alienates, but the only thing for certain in all this is that there is no way to please everybody and ESPN needs to stop trying.  

Trump and his supporters are not going to be satisfied with any apology or even with the firing of Hill. Those who agree with her, meanwhile, are appalled to read in Think Progress that the network tried to pull her off of SC6, at least temporarily, but then changed its mind when none of the other available anchors would take her chair, an account that ESPN disputes. This is not the first time ESPN has sabotaged itself this way. Earlier this month, it brought back Hank Williams Jr. and his Monday Night Football anthem, this time with Jason Derulo and a lot of auto-tune. Fans left, right, and center found it awful. In August, in a truly bizarre moment, the network pulled an announcer named Robert Lee off a college football game to be played in Charlottesville, Va., because it was afraid of the social media his name might set off. 

ESPN has always wanted to inhabit a sporting world that is beyond politics. That world never really existed, and Trump, by stepping on virtually every cultural norm in America, has removed the luxury of pretending that it does. In a message to employees on Friday, network Chief Executive Officer John Skipper reiterated that “ESPN is not a political organization” and wrote that comments on social media should, at a minimum, “not be inflammatory or personal.” This is a fuzzy rule that will only lead to the network, once again, becoming a piñata.  

ESPN needs to start acting like the market leader that it is. Let the talent tweet and talk about politics. Don’t let them indulge in hate speech. Draw the lines where you see fit. If somebody says that this betrays a political bias, let them. Most of the network’s harshest critics would be ecstatic to have its reach. Responding to them only amplifies their voices. Send Hank Williams Jr. packing, if you want to. Or keep him. Either way, all his rowdy friends are going to be there on Monday night. 

    Ira Boudway
    Reporter:Global Business
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