Last month, we looked at whether ESPN’s decidedly leftward bent and declining ratings were more than coincidence. Conservative sports fans have been complaining that the network was driving them away by too often trying to shoe-horn politics into places that politics just didn’t need to be.
Some election-season musings by ESPN’s Public Editor Jim Brady confirmed that we aren’t just grumpy and definitely haven’t been imagining all of this.
The 2016 presidential election season has been one most of us will never forget. The tone has been ugly, the controversies endless, the coverage unrelenting. Our social media feeds are full of politically charged statements, and what dialogue does exist between differing sides more often resembles a WWE match than nuanced debate.
Thankfully, I get to write about ESPN, where the focus on sports means I never have to deal with politics.
Ah, if only that were true.
As it turns out, ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year. Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers — both liberal and conservative — that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.
Brady offers a few reasons that this is so, including social media, which has become a popular thing to blame for almost anything lately.
Network brass and some of the newer personalities don’t think there is a problem. The responses are pretty much the same thing you’d hear, if you asked people at NBC news if they thought they were biased.
However, Bob Ley, who has been with ESPN since days after it launched, thinks the political one-sidedness is problematic:
Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem.
“We’ve done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
As I mentioned in the previous post, the problem isn’t just that the politics are progressive. It’s that they are there at all. Drama and passion are inherent in sports. They don’t need more from an external source. Sports are also a refuge from the rest of the world, for many of us. When I relax with a beer to watch football, I don’t want a lecture on gun control. I also don’t want recipes, phone calls, or the sound of Gregorian chants coming from another room. I just want to watch football.
ESPN’s higher-ups don’t seem to grasp that the paying customers aren’t interested in their lack of boundaries when it comes to their political feelings, despite the fact that there aren’t as many paying customers as there used to be.
Many a successful enterprise has fallen apart, by losing focus and abandoning the people that made it successful. Of course, not every ESPN viewer is conservative and offended right now, but the network should consider whether liberal sports fans want social lessons rammed down their throats, even if they agree with the lessons.
Hopefully, the executives in Bristol, Connecticut, will take away a lesson or two from the recent election and start trying to reconnect with non-liberal America.
Creative Commons/Flickr/Rob Poetsch