ESPN has announced it is laying off up to 100 employees — roughly half of which may be “recognizable names,” many of which seem to be in hockey and college football — as the Worldwide Leader in Sports suffers steep monthly declines in its subscriber base.
It is almost always sad when people lose their jobs, but in the current cultural moment, perhaps the intrusion of politics was inevitable. For example, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders (a partner of USA Today) brought a broad brush to smear sports fans:
Undoubtedly, some people opposed to the recent and increasing left-liberal politicization of sports media, especially ESPN, took to social media to gloat. Social media often brings out the worst in people. But journalists like Schatz only feed a vicious cycle. Indeed, in response to the obvious point that some people may prefer to watch ESPN for sports and other channels for political debates, he kept digging:
Ironically, it took a tweet from the conservative, warmongering Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch to assist Schatz:
Layoffs at ESPN have nothing to do with the politics of the on-air staff and everything to do with structural problems in the cable biz.
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) April 26, 2017
Bunch’s answer is certainly better, but it is only partially correct. The politicization of ESPN — and sports media generally — is both a symptom of larger problems and a problem in itself. Ironically, the corporate side of ESPN seems to view it as a cure instead.
What ESPN Won and Lost from the Internet Effect
The politicization of sports media — like the ESPNification of political media — has been driven by technological advances and consumers’ adaptation to them. When satellite and cable were emerging and ascendant technologies, the wind was in the sails of outlets like ESPN. In true supply-side fashion, the new ability to offer a wide array of live sports programming was able to service a previously nonexistent demand.
Times were good. ESPN became a marquee draw for marketing cable and satellite subscriptions to the masses. ESPN charged cable and satellite providers hefty fees for their programming. That revenue permitted ESPN to pay huge fees to the sports leagues and organizations for the exclusive rights to live sports events.
It was a virtuous circle, but vulnerable to the same technological disruption that created it. Cable and satellite technology ultimately became the handmaidens of the even more powerful technology of the Internet.
Cable and satellite technology provided live sports programming that decreased demand for “gamers” — stories that simply recapped the event. The Internet’s ability to provide scores and highlights on demand (with varying degrees of legality) decreased not only demand for “gamers,” but also the requirement that people devote themselves to watching the events live themselves.
In an age of Internet-driven ADHD, why spend hours watching a game in real time when I can watch it on fast-forward with my DVR, or catch the highlights in near real-time via clips posted on Twitter? My social media friends who are fans of a team will immediately inform me of the score — and every big play — whether I am interested or not.
Politics Seeps Into Branding
These phenomena drive the cord-cutting trend, particularly with the younger demographic that media outlets would like to see as their future. Yet ESPN finds itself in a tough spot, as sports remain one of the main things some people will feel compelled to watch live, and it is a core element of their brand.
The Internet’s disruption of journalism extends to sports journalism. Reporters and columnists alike have been forced to think about building their personal brands as much as their employer’s brands because they may be working for someone else or looking for a new job tomorrow.
In this environment, journalists have become more personal both on social and professional media. Since journalism, including sports journalism, is a field dominated by liberals, more politicized content with a left-wing flavor was a distinct possibility.
But why would a corporate entity like ESPN go along with the politicization of sports journalism? This shift was likely to alienate a significant segment of its core audience — not only those non-lefties who would be inclined to react on a visceral level, but also those who watch sports in part to escape the overt politics the New New Left seeks to inject into every facet of modern life.
The political leanings of execs at places like ESPN are a partial explanation at most. Again, the technological shifts affecting media consumers’ consumption habits likely plays a larger role.
Commentary Is Cheaper Than Reporting
ESPN, far more than its competitors, is chained to expensive contracts for live programming rights. These contracts generally limit or prohibit ESPN’s ability to shift its programming to corporate sibling ABC, where they might reach a larger pool of potential viewers. Thus, the virtuous circle becomes a vicious cycle, as a smaller audience depresses the fees ESPN can charge carriers or collect from advertisers to pay for the live events.
What is a network to do? Like their competitors and regular cable news, ESPN turned to controversy in an attempt to draw or hold an audience. As Roger Ailes discovered decades ago when creating Fox News, it is far cheaper to air a panel discussion (or shouting match) about an event than to expand straight news coverage. This is doubly or triply true when the alternative is paying hefty exclusive rights fees to a major sports league.
Accordingly, ESPN, like a sizeable segment of sports media, acceded to the talent’s proclivity for “hot takes,” discussions and debates wherever the world of sports could collide with the hot-button political issues of the moment. The play is for woke millennials, not the older demographics who (ironically) are less likely to cut their cords.
ESPN might have been better off if it had tried to offer its core audience more in-depth coverage, more education regarding the nuances and strategies of the games it is paying so much to air. But the desire to chase a broader and younger audience is not incomprehensible, even if it means chasing more marginal fans. (This is also likely a reason Disney relentlessly and occasionally absurdly uses ESPN to cross-promote other Disney projects.)
This Is Only a Temporary Fix
ESPN’s problem is that this strategy has not arrested the decline in people subscribing to cable or satellite television to obtain it. Turning itself into SJWPN may or may not be accelerating cord-cutting, but it does not seem to have reversed the trend. Now ESPN’s employees are feeling the results of this failed strategy, some of whom may never have been down with the struggle. There is no Calvin Trager to save them.
Even worse, ESPN — assuming for the sake of argument that it knows this strategy is failing — has no Plan B: “Our content strategy – primarily illustrated in recent months by melding distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with our biggest sub-brand – still needs to go further, faster…and as always, must be efficient and nimble,” said ESPN President John Skipper in a memo to employees.
The assumption that ESPN recognizes its problem is debatable. Indeed, ESPN’s public editor is pretty excited about not sticking to sports. But also note they want to reach millennials on their smartphones.
For now, ESPN is employing all the tactics of crisis management to temporarily paper over its economic and political problems. The current layoffs have been rumored for some time, but ESPN moved to swing the axe now, before its mid-May “upfront” presentations to advertisers and perhaps before the May 9 earnings call for its corporate parent, Disney.
The bad news also was announced the day before NFL Draft Day, perhaps in the hope that the spectacle in Philly will quickly shuttle this unpleasantness into the memory hole. It might work, if only temporarily. I enjoy Draft Day coverage to a psychotic degree. After all, who is not riveted by Mel Kiper Jr’s impression of Eddie Munster as Rain Man?