Has ESPN’s injection of politics into its sports fare finally alienated a sizable chunk of its audience?
The Worldwide Leader in Sports, along with most other top cable channels, lost viewership for the year. The sports behemoth still reigns as the king of cable. But its decline comes as the network anchors its daily programming with Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, and other programs that inject a heavy dose of politics into sports coverage. Though the network jettisoned former MSNBC talker Keith Olbermann earlier this year, The Sports Reporters, Outside the Lines, and other shows continue a non sequitur approach to sports by obsessing over politicized issues tangentially connected to athletics.
Earlier this week, for instance, The Nation‘s Dave Zirin told viewers of Outside the Lines that “for a lot of people it has been scary to see the most famous athlete in the National Football League, Tom Brady, say that he is good friends with Donald Trump.” Other network talking heads lobbied the NFL on the air to remove last year’s Super Bowl from Arizona because of a religious freedom bill that sought to allow business owners to opt out of services that violated conscience. When Missouri players boycotted team activities in an effort to oust the school’s president, Paul Finebaum opined on ESPN2 that Mizzou players “scored the singular biggest win of the year in college football,” while Highly Questionable‘s Dan LeBatard gushed, “This is sports as leadership. This is sports as social activism.”
“ESPN averaged 2.1 million viewers, an 8% drop compared with last year when it averaged 2.3 million viewers,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Its closest rival was Fox Sports 1, which averaged just 385,000 viewers in prime time. NBC Sports Network averaged 365,000.”
Fox News, HGTV, and the Discovery Channel alone among the ten leading networks boosted viewership, according to The Wall Street Journal. ESPN’s drop comes despite on-demand and internet programming’s inability to eat into the ratings of live games as it does other broadcasting fare and as NFL games continue to prove a ratings juggernaut.