ESPN is Moving Backward, Alienating Sports Fans With Every Move

ESPN inked a production deal with Colin Kaepernick for a documentary on his life; Jemele Hill is producing the doc.

This move says all you need to know about the decision making at ESPN right now.

It doesn't care what its fans want.

It certainly doesn't care what the data says (despite claiming to).

Its statements mean nothing, and it just told at least half the country to turn the channel. Yes, at least half disagree with Kaepernick, who just said the Fourth of July is a “celebration of white supremacy.”

ESPN has fully embraced becoming a left-wing cable news channel over the past few months: MSESPN, as Clay Travis calls it. What makes this decision even more ridiculous is that ESPN already made that pivot and has since spent the last three years trying to fix its ratings-tanking mistake.

In 2016, still under John Skipper, ESPN took the term "woke" to a new level. The channel's personalities were Kaepernick's most vigorous supporters. Simultaneously, ESPN started a battle with the country's most popular sport, the NFL. Its hosts spent more time bashing it, propagating that it was "declining," and going to be surpassed by the NBA, than they did actually talking about the games.

This lasted for several years.

"Is it time to panic?"

You can hardly blame the hosts; they were just trying to get promotions and extensions. ESPN management was rewarding it.

ESPN promoted the Right Time with Bomani Jones to afternoon national drive on ESPN Radio. A sports radio show that went heavy into social issues and NFL bashing. The show didn't last long. Reports say it lost over 90 affiliates and had the worst ratings in ESPN Radio history.

Will Cain replaced Jones. Cain did a show for sports fans, football fans, fans looking for an escape from online drama and social issues. The Will Cain Show experienced unprecedented success in the time slot, picked up affiliates including major markets, like Los Angeles. Cain's success was primarily responsible for ESPN's press releases on the increased radio ratings this past fall.

Cain left the network, leaving a void, a different voice, that the network isn't in position to replace.

SportsCenter wasn't woke enough. Read that again. It focused too much on sports, ESPN thought.

So, ESPN completely changed the 6 p.m. SportsCenter in February 2017. Outwent the highlights, in-came SC6 with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. The show was such a mess, both Hill and Smith are gone from the network now. The format didn't last even a year.

Once ESPN went back to a traditional format, with Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi, the ratings went up instantly.

But that move didn't convince ESPN that sports fans wanted actual sports talk. A few years later, ESPN replaced the noon SportsCenter with High Noon. This lasted a few months before tanking so badly it had to be replaced by, wait for it, a traditional SportsCenter, which worked upon returning. ESPN gave High Noon another try at 4 p.m. With the same topics and hysteria, it failed there too. ESPN canceled High Noon earlier this year. ESPN has re-signed both Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre to contract extensions.

The most high-profile ignore-the-sports-fan decision came with the morning show, Get Up. Michelle Beadle was given one of the hosting roles. Beadle didn't even try to hide her disconnect with the sports fans. She admitted, on-air, in one of the most baffling segments in the network's history, she doesn't even watch football.

The show struggled to garner even 300,000 viewers at first. Since then, ESPN pivoted to a format with Mike Greenberg, which focuses on the top sports stories of the day. The results aren't hard to guess: viewership is up, and the show is now one of ESPN's most acclaimed around the industry. (Get Up could be the lone ESPN show that doesn't resemble MSNBC in the coming weeks.)

ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro, who replaced Skipper, saw the mess that had been created under the old regime. Thus, he fixed most of the problems. And publicly stated the data concludes the viewers do not want the network to cover political topics (I was in the media room when he said this):

Pitaro's was right, the data did say it. And it still does.

In addition to the moves ESPN had to make to put out the fires ignited in the daily lineup (listed above), it reverted back to focusing on just sports. Hence the ratings spike for several key shows. Instead of headlines from comments on race, Donald Trump, Kaepernick, and kneeling, ESPN produced buzz discussing the NFL and NBA. These came from its top stars: Stephen A. Smith, Scott Van Pelt, Mike Greenberg, Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Max Kellerman. As well as new stars created discussing, you know, sports: Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovsky, Will Cain, Maria Taylor, Emmanuel Acho.

It was all going so well.

The first glimpse that ESPN wasn't so serious about enforcing its strict political policy and leaving the past behind came last summer. Dan Le Batard went on his radio show to criticize Trump, and, get this, his own company:

"We here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight, because Jemele did some things on Twitter and you saw what happened after that, and then here all of a sudden nobody talks politics on anything unless we can use one of these sports figures as a meat-shield in the most cowardly possible way to discuss these subjects.”

"No politics!" Expect for Le Batard, maybe?

But it didn't get real bad at ESPN until recently. It's 2016-17 on steroids. Both in content and in the results.

ESPN, for the most part, provides the same left-leaning, what works on Twitter perspective all-day. This includes Drew Brees bashing and shaming, irresponsible takes on the Bubba Wallace story, and some PR for Kaepernick. The ratings couldn't be worse. One day, during non-stop social topics, ESPN recorded a 41-year low.

It put on a social justice-focused ESPYs. That, too, tanked at an unheard-of degree. Only 482,000 viewers tuned in. That is the smallest ever and down substantially from the previous low of 1.98 million in 2011. That’s down 81% from 2014, which was the last time it aired on ESPN, not ABC.

Two weeks ago, ESPN aired a special for The Undefeated in primetime. 100,000 viewers watched it. How does that stack up? Well, it was 25-year low for ESPN in primetime.

To follow all of this up, to deter all of the positive momentum it had over the past two years, ESPN is working with Kaepernick. A personality who is now disproportionately known for politics, not sports.

Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson, who pushes back at all of the narratives ESPN pushes, now has the highest-rated cable news show ever. Carlson is also drawing more viewers in the younger demographic than ESPN's shows do, during the football season, in total viewership.

Yes, this is very bad for ESPN.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.