via Politico by BEN STRAUSS
Last week, ESPN, often referred to as the Worldwide Leader in Sports, laid off around 100 employees. The cuts were painfully public and claimed the jobs of some of the top talent and most familiar faces at the network. At the heart of the latest downsizing, as with earlier layoffs, is math: The network has committed billions of dollars to broadcast live sports, and waves of cord-cutters now threaten the cash flow to pay those bills. But amid the hand-wringing over the cable giant’s business outlook, a subplot has begun to dominate the coverage: ESPN’S politics.
“[The] collapse has been aided by ESPN's absurd decision to turn into MSESPN, a left wing sports network,” wrote Clay Travis on Wednesday. “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
For several years now, Travis has been one of the loudest, most persistent antagonists of ESPN on the internet, haranguing the behemoth sports network in much the same way that right-wing disrupters have lobbied against the political media establishment. Among Travis’ biggest gripes: ESPN heaped laudatory coverage on Michael Sam, an openly gay football player, while firing Curt Schilling for a series of incendiary remarks. The network honored Caitlyn Jenner with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award after she came out as a trans woman, and then moved a company event away from a Donald Trump golf course. In debating former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, Paul Finebaum, a widely respected college football commentator, said on his ESPN radio show, “This country is not oppressing black people.” After a public outcry, Finebaum appeared on SportsCenter to apologize. (There was also the prime-time TV show hosted by the left-leaning Keith Olbermann that ran from 2013-15.)
By the end of last week, Deep Root, a media analytics firm that does work for Republicans, published a study that suggested that politics have affected ESPN’s audience. According to Deep Root, which matched voter files and set-top box data, ESPN’s viewers in Cincinnati were majority Republican in 2015; in 2016, they skewed Democratic.
ESPN has not tried to hide its social agenda, but it couches it as transcending politics. “We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy,” ESPN President John Skipper told ESPN ombudsman Jim Brady in December when he was asked whether the perceived political shift was real or intentional. In the same column, Brady quoted an anonymous conservative employee as saying, “If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers. There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV [in the office].” He concluded that ESPN could stand to offer more diverse viewpoints on the air.
None of this is to say that politics was the direct cause of ESPN’s layoffs. It wasn’t. “You’re looking at a changing business; that’s the driving factor here,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at financial services firm BTIG. Over the past four years, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers. Some of them are people who don’t watch sports on TV and now have the option to purchase skinnier cable bundles, which is especially painful because ESPN gets more than $7 per subscriber, the most of any channel.
But as ESPN responds to a new era of millennial media habits to shore up its bottom line, it must also wrestle with the relative appetite of its viewers for political debate in a space that often has been considered—mistakenly—as a refuge from the contentious questions that dominate the political realm. If the network embraces a more explicitly political style of programming, then it must contend with the same issues of balance and objectivity as an explicitly news-oriented media outlet. Of course, the very nature of the hyperpartisan climate means that some segments of the viewing public may already have made up their mind.
“You go to rural Wisconsin, you go to Pueblo County, Colorado—there are people who hate us, the elite media,” said Poynter’s media critic Jim Warren. “It’s a visceral disdain that gives me no satisfaction, but an award for Caitlyn Jenner reflects a liberal ethos that dominates American journalism. It’s not just in politics; it seems to be in sports now, too.”
More from Politco here > Did Too Much Caitlyn Jenner Doom ESPN?