Since its inception in 1979, ESPN has arguably had a strong monopoly on sports coverage and commentary. The network most recently found itself in hot water when it made headlines over firing 100 employees. The cuts affected some of our favorite and tenured on-air talent.
While many former employees are still coming to terms with their dismissal, the public already began to attribute the main cause of the layoffs to liberal biases. From honoring Caitlyn Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage after he came out as a transgender woman to moving a company event from a Donald Trump golf course, ESPN has made zero attempts to hide its cultural agenda. As ESPN struggles to redeem itself from a public relations nightmare, they must also restructure the tone of their network, often seen as a retreat from the dreary 24-hour news cycle.
Most recently, ESPN released the results of a study polling ESPN viewers on their impression of the network’s political affiliations. While claims of channel’s liberal leanings have been a common denominator, the execs at ESPN beg to differ, and reporting that “Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents believe ESPN is getting it right in terms of mixing sports news and political issues.”
From these results, ESPN was essentially able to conclude that its sudden interest in political discourse has in no way affected its overall performance as a network, and in fact “Was the highest-rated full-time cable network among Men and Adults aged 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.”
Let’s Face It, ESPN: You’re Boring
I have a hard time putting into words what the problem with ESPN is. I mean, politics plays a role, but I think it’s smaller than it’s made out to be. Politics just easily becomes the scapegoat because the channel’s so boring when a game isn’t on. It’s fairly simple to produce an engaging program dedicated to weekly match highlights, but the personalities hosting Sportscenter are about as stale as an avocado that sat untouched for two days.
I’ll give credit to the team behind the 30 for 30 specials, but it’s pretty difficult to structure a network behind the has-beens of the sports world (even if O.J. somehow managed to convince you he didn’t do it). I suppose that’s primarily part of the issue: having four channels devoted to “sports” that mostly just cover the four most profitable leagues: NFL, NBA, MLB, and NCAAF.
Take that knowledge and use it towards examining the 24-hour news cycles we also subscribe to. How much of that is thought-provoking commentary and the rest just the same content reinvented every other hour to deflect criticism caused by lack of creativity?
At any given moment during the day, you can turn on ESPN and find the classic set-up: Two guys and a less-than-interested moderator with a list of exasperating topics and a countdown clock on the side. It’s not a conversation that builds. Rather, it allows for soap-boxing and yelling. They barely even crack jokes anymore!
In this politically charged time, should we be surprised that ESPN has conformed to fit the conversation of our nation and encouraged on-air talent to spend hours providing hot takes to disgruntled viewers on topics they were most likely briefed on minutes before show time? What’s pretty upsetting is that when ESPN pressed its hosts to get more political, they fired the black conservative host who dared share her opinions!
Honestly, ESPN’s best recent moments have come in airing the more ridiculous sports. The World Series of Darts was incredible, and I’m sure the rights were cheap because the participants were visibly intoxicated. Every year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a depressing reminder that, at the age of 11, I was plotting how I would sneak backstage at a Backstreet Boys concert, not fielding acceptance letters from the top colleges and universities in the country.
Let’s Roll Down The List of Talent
The reason this network is suffering is not because of live sports, but due to their lack of real programming. ESPN heavily relies on on-air talent, and unfortunately most of them no longer provide any solid commentary with key takeaways. Unlike in previous years, there’s no one currently on-air who, no matter what you’re doing, immediately commands your attention.
Sure, there’s Stephen (Screaming) A. Smith of “First Take.” who is guaranteed to solicit at least three aggressive eye-rolls from viewers each day. If we are talking personalities who know how to walk a fine line between trolling and providing true analysis, let’s give a shout-out to Dan Le Batard. I don’t mind him most of the time, but that’s mainly because on some level he knows what he’s talking about. You have to admire his discontent for traitors.
My most favorite memory of him was in 2014 when ESPN suspended him for two days for taking out a billboard in LeBron James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio to remind him where he won his first two championships—with Le Batard’s beloved Miami Heat. Was it tacky and juvenile? Sure. Funny? You bet.
Mel Kiper Jr.’s time with the network, though, has lasted far past his expiration date. Over the years, he has done a remarkable job of making the NFL draft popular among audiences. However, his new act of “Way Too Early NFL Draft Rankings” mere days after the most recent draft proves that his only relevancy to ESPN is a three-month job that he has managed to stretch year-round.
So where do we turn our attention? Fox Sports? They’ve managed to poach some of ESPN’s money-making talent. I’m no fan of Skip Bayless, but I’ve got to hand it to Fox Sports for successfully giving him an even larger platform to shout his no-nonsense LeBron slander. Despite what you might think of him, the man lives and breathes sports, and one day I aspire to be half as clever of a troll.
But I could not be more impressed with Katie Nolan. Here you have a fearless, attractive woman who understands the game just as (if not better) than any of the aforementioned blowhards. Katie’s one-hour, Emmy-award winning program “Garbage Time” was one of the few shows critics couldn’t find anything wrong with. Unfortunately, her limited exposure ultimately led to its demise. With her career with FS1 still in limbo after almost four months since we last saw her on the air, it would be ESPN’s smartest move this year to woo her from Fox Sports.
ESPN has to examine when its problems began, rectify them, and return to their roots. They are running out of options to salvage the loyalty of the 88 million subscribers (including yours truly) blindly adding ESPN channels to their cable packages. Sure, that means we’ll be returning to traditional coverage, but isn’t that better than turning on your screen and watching a college football star who barely cut it in the NFL fumble his way through commentary comparing Colin Kaepernick’s activism to that of a 1970s political rally?
I know the leadership and stakeholders behind ESPN truly believe in the network’s future and direction. Viewers aren’t completely convinced, but with time and non-biased reporting, they will be.