ESPN seems to have finally reached the point of denial. The more they say that politics has nothing to do with their network’s demise, the more they sound like they’re saying that politics has a lot to do with their network’s demise.
Take for instance the most recent examples of ESPN politics-deniers: Outside the Lines’ Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap.
In a conversation with Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder, primarily about their new permanent TV slot for E:60 on Sunday nights, Schaap and Ley took shots at the theory put forth by FS1’s Jason Whitlock, and others, that ESPN’s embrace of leftwing politics has played a significant role in its loss of viewers and subscribers.
According to Awful Announcing:
As for the theories (especially from Twitter trolls) that ESPN’s trouble came from politics?
“I don’t think that’s true in any way, shape or form,” said Schaap. “I don’t think there’s any data to support it. I know that it’s a narrative out there. I saw Jason Whitlock wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about it. But I don’t buy it. I know we are living in a time where things are being politicized in sports in a way that they haven’t been. And that’s not caused by ESPN, that’s what we’re seeing.”
He pointed to Colin Kaepernick’s protests and NBA players wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts as examples.
“I can’t imagine people are cancelling their cable because we’re covering news stories,” he said.
Ley added that there’s “no nefarious plot.”
“So anybody who talks the narrative that there’s a political bias and that leads to business difficulties, I think that shows what political view they’re coming from,” he said.
In his article on Ley and Schaap’s comments, Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz makes the point that although some might have cut the cord on ESPN over politics, there’s no data which proves politics has been a major factor in ESPN’s hardships:
Now, there’s no question that some people are unhappy with ESPN’s perceived left-wing slant (as that above poll suggests), and there’s also no question that ESPN’s policies on politics have changed, from “No politics” (which was never fully enforced to begin with) to “commentary is okay if you’re not in hard news, especially when politics impact sport.” It’s also not in dispute that it’s much harder to have political “neutrality” these days, given the polarization of America and the constant intersections of politics and sports.
ESPN’s corporate approach can be disagreed with, as can their individual personalities’ politics, and some who disagree may wind up cancelling cable (or taking smaller but still significant actions, such as watching less ESPN, reading their site less, using their app less and so on). But Schaap is right that there’s no data we’ve yet seen to support politics being a major factor in any of ESPN’s current struggles.
Well, that’s just not true.
As reported here over a week ago, TV data service Deep Root made a case study of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Specifically, seeking proof of whether or not ESPN lost Republican viewership as the network ramped up its liberal commentary during the run-up to the 2016 election.
Here’s what they found:
Specifically, in 2015, the ESPN audience on average skewed Republican across all dayparts, ranging from 12% more Republican (Early News, Late Fringe, Overnight) to 21% more Republican than Democratic (Early Morning).
In 2016, every daypart on ESPN became less conservative, with Daytime being only 2% more Republican than Democratic, while Late Fringe and Overnight programming became 10% and 12% more Democratic than Republican – a 22 and 28 point shift, respectively.
The same is true across other ESPN properties. ESPN2 skewed Republican across most dayparts in 2015; in 2016 all dayparts skewed Democratic. Every daypart also switched on ESPN News from 2015 to 2016.
ESPNU was the only network that retained its mostly Republican audience. ESPN Deportes – the network’s Spanish-language channel – became even more Democratic in 2016 than it already was in 2015.
So, as ESPN became more and more liberal, so did their audience. Translation: ESPN’s political slant cost them viewers.
Granted, this study only analyzes one U.S. city. However, Cincinnati was selected for a reason, in that it’s a good representation of America since it’s a large market in a swing state. So, while its only one city, there’s no reason to think that the findings there wouldn’t get mirrored in other major media markets throughout the country. Especially, since most sports fans track Republican anyway.
Again, no one would say ESPN’s leftward lurch is the only reason why the network has face-planted over the last several years. However, in light of the Deep Root study, evidence clearly exists that politics has caused significant damage to the “Worldwide Leader.”
If ESPN continues to deny that evidence exists, then I guess we’ll know what political view they’re coming from.
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter: @themightygwinn