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ESPN’s Disastrous 2020 Looms Large Going Forward

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ESPN is ending its year in much the same way it ended in 2016. It has been a year full of self-inflicted wounds driven by a desire for acceptance from loud, active social media accounts whose interests run opposite to most sports fans.

In the book of ESPN, the chapter entitled “2020” will surely be on the review sheet. The chapter reads long, beginning with the agenda-driven decision to get back into business with Jemele Hill for a documentary on Colin Kaepernick.

ESPN’s personalities spent months on divisive social issues and presented their views as indisputable, oftentimes leaving out actual facts and context. Jalen Rose yelled to arrest the police who “murdered Breonna Taylor” during a live sports broadcast. ESPN spent weeks denouncing Drew Brees for his support of the American flag. The irresponsible coverage of Bubba Wallace’s garage needs at least two paragraphs to explain.

Its most prominent NBA insider, Adrian Wojnarowski, sent a Republican senator a “fuck you” email. Maria Taylor got into several Twitter fights. Max Kellerman insulted the entire southern sports fan base. Mark Jones spewed anti-police rhetoric. And just this week, Domonique Foxworth made a fool of himself by admitting he roots for Josh Allen to fail because his fans support dogs and the American flag.

Each case has directly led to a collapse in ratings and interest. Most notably, ESPN’s favorite league, the NBA, lost 51% of its Finals viewers. ESPN’s praise and promotion of the NBA’s social justice campaign contributed to sports fans turning away at record rates.

That’s ESPN’s 2020. That’s the leading sports network’s past year. That’s ESPN’s identity heading into 2021.

Even the Spark Notes version is a downer. The network no longer features hosts who are idolized by young sports fans. Every 16-year-old high school sports player wanted to be Dan Patrick or Stuart Scott. ESPN’s current roster features few talents ever confused as fun or likable. Most are the kind of people that humans not living on Twitter try to avoid.

These mistakes and decisions are adding up. Trends come and go, but identities can last decades. Trends are for dedicated viewers, but identities are the brand. CNN’s brand is “the news network.” While that’s far from true in 2020, its identity to this day is still “the news network.” Millions of non-news viewers chose to watch it over Fox News, MSNBC, and the broadcast networks in November.

ESPN’s brand is pro-Twitter and anti-sports. Politically, it’s far-Left and anti-center Right. It’s for the NBA and against the NFL. ESPN’s hosts used to cater to the interests of sports fans. Now, they look down on them. ESPN’s brand is no longer meant for most viewers, and most viewers have responded by turning away from the network’s programs and personalities.

At this point, ESPN may not be able to fix its daily programming. Two-thirds of the country has been turned off by the condescension and needless politicking. The remaining third doesn’t watch TV. They don’t even really like sports. They just tweet about them because sports give them a reason to virtue signal.

ESPN will be fine with live sports, but its original programming is circling the drain, fast.

Six years ago, ESPN was the ideal background channel. Since then, it’s become as toxic as cable news.

Losing viewers has turned ESPN from a good business into a bad business. And now, ESPN jobs are no longer even the best job in sports media.

From 2015 to 2017, ESPN’s top personalities with expiring contracts left, calculating they were better off elsewhere. All have been proven correct. Did they see the future?

Colin Cowherd turned down offers from ESPN and has grown his brand significantly at Fox, FS1, iHeart Radio, and across the digital space. There may not be a more monetizable sports media talent right now than Cowherd.

Skip Bayless, too, turned down large salary offers from ESPN to go to FS1. While First Take out-rates Undisputed, the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. When Bayless left, First Take’s ratings plummeted over 30%. The fall was so alarming that the network took First Take off of ESPN2 and moved it to ESPN. The move essentially killed ESPN2.

The same year Bayless left, Mike Tirico chose to leave too. Tirico went to NBC. Between NBC’s coverage of the NFL, golf, the Olympics, NHL, and racing, Tirico’s Q-rating now leads the industry. Since his departure from Monday Night Football, viewers have consistently panned the broadcast and its in-game analysis. MNF is now on its third play-by-play commentator since Tirico. While current play-by-player Steve Levy has been better received, it’s a question if he’s the answer to call a Super Bowl, assuming ABC gets into the rotation.

By repeating the same mistakes it made in 2016, ESPN endured another talent exodus in 2020. ESPN came into the year with a long list of talents with expiring contracts. By and large, the personalities with potential and market value left.

Adam Amin, one of the industry’s brightest play-by-play voices, took off for Fox Sports, where his career is rapidly rising. Will Cain turned down offers to stay at ESPN for Fox News, where he is considered to be one of the next big stars. Emmanuel Acho, too, turned down ESPN’s extension offer for Fox. Few if any talents under 35 have Acho’s ceiling. And now, the legendary Tom Rinaldi has recently announced that he will be leaving for Fox Sports too.

That’s a devastating year.

By contrast, the personalities without much market value have mostly opted to stay. Katie Nolan, Sarah Spain, Bomani Jones, and Pablo Torre have all renewed their contracts with ESPN.

This has been a trend, but it’s quickly becoming an identity. Valuable personalities are no longer desperate to get to ESPN. Now they want to leave.

Much of the same should continue in 2021. Those with better options will go. As OutKick reported, Dan Le Batard, ESPN’s biggest podcast draw, is leaving in January. Paul Finebaum’s contract expires mid-2021, and he is expected to receive outside offers.

2020 has been a bad year for most Americans, but not because of the choices they made. ESPN, on the other hand, did this to itself. Instead of creating an escape during the pandemic, ESPN fully embraced nationwide unrest and a divisive election. This decision cost the sports network viewers and on-air talents in the process.

Follow Bobby Burack on Twitter.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

36 Comments

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  1. First and foremost, fantastic article, Bobby. Watching ESPN’s precipitous decline since they “kneeled in bed” with Kaepernick has been compelling. They’ve ACTIVELY gone out of their way to tell the average sports lover to find a new home with their moves of woke embracing whether through their advertising and/or personalities.

    “The network no longer features hosts who are idolized by young sports fans. Every 16-year-old high school sports player wanted to be Dan Patrick or Stuart Scott. ESPN’s current roster features few talents ever confused as fun or likable. Most are the kind of people that humans not living on Twitter try to avoid.” This needs to be in BOLD. I’m almost 38 and this is 100% accurate. In class or in the gym saying phrases like “BOO-YA!” or “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” was all too common as Sportscenter was almost religion growing up in this era. Now!? These “personalities” are obnoxious, annoying, ignorant, instigators, and just plain trash.

    This is why they’re paying a premium to broadcast live sports because they don’t have anything else going for them that would keep the average viewer around to watch their other content. If you think I’m sticking around to listen to the likes of peanut-head Foxworth and co., you’re wrong!

  2. Best Bobby article to date! Could not agree more, take away live college football and the occasional euro soccer game and espn is worthless. I would rather dig a ditch than watch any of their regular programming. Even PTI is starting to slip away.

  3. It’s great to see this roster of race baiters and militant homosexual activists gradually putting themselves — and the four-letter network — out of work… they can join that insane rectal louse Olbermann on basement podcasts that no one listens to…

  4. So funny about ideal background channel. For at least the last 30 years every night it would be just that for my midnight snack. Just turn on ESPN and read the day’s news. Since last year, I haven’t watched a second. And I like Scott Van Pelt. But I can’t watch out of principle. Now it’s Game Show Network for me.

  5. I’d love to see Paul Finebaum land someplace other than ESPN next year. It’s the same way with every large organization; when the ship starts sinking the ones who can leave do and you’re left with only the dead weight to drag you down even faster.

    By the way, Pablo Torre has to be the most ridiculous sports commentator I have ever laid eyes on. You look at him and he just screams “diversity hire” at you.

  6. Paul Finebaum should leave ESPN before the start of the 2021 football season. After ESPN brass marched Paul out at gunpoint to publicly apologize for criticizing Colin Kaepernick, he has never been the same. Have you ever seen a TV personality so uncomfortable on live TV? He now has such weird opinions on the sports – political – social justice topics that I don’t think he believes anything he is saying. Just carefully toeing the line so he doesn’t lose his nice TV gig. Get out Paul. Get out fast.

    • Very well said Bobby-
      “2020 has been a bad year for most Americans, but not because of the choices they made. ESPN, on the other hand, did this to itself. Instead of creating an escape during the pandemic, ESPN fully embraced nationwide unrest and a divisive election.” Exactly right!

  7. The days of Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, and Stewart Scott were a lot of fun but those days are gone. Now I have to know what every espn broadcasters politics are and oh, by the way, they’re all the same. I’ve been over espn for years now but this year has put the nail in the coffin for me. The nba and espn are the blind leading the blind and they pushed me, a one time loyal watcher, out the door. The bright spot is I found OutKick and have really been enjoying reading these articles. Keep up the great work.

  8. Nice to know that I am in lots of company when I report that I have NOT watched anything on the ESPiN family of networks except live sports. They can take their political commentary and shout it from the rooftops, because I ain’t hearing it. And hello “Big Noon Kickoff” goodbye College Game Day. Urban alone makes the Fox show better!

  9. Reading this and the comments was a righteous way to start this day. I’ll never forgive ESPN for what it has done to sports media and sports itself with its incessant drum beat of wokeness. It turned what always was a haven from life’s BS and a potential common ground for folks of all stripes into one-sided, divisive political turf. Unwatchable now aside from live events, and even then the pissant announcers often bleat their lefty views as if they’re chiseled in stone for every viewer. Nope. So over.

  10. It is amazing to watch how far they have fallen. There a few good personalities left such as SVP (only reason to watch Sportscenter), Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon, Mike Greenburg, Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler. So much talent has left with nothing to replace it.

  11. I quit ESPN a few years ago. I only watch ESPN when live U of Maryland sports are on. Otherwise the fake news leftist hate spewing race baiters of ESPN will never be on my TV. I gave up on all pregame shows on all networks, the fake protesting communist ass kissing coward bitches of the NBA are dead to me and baseball isn’t far behind them. I cut my NFL time down to watching the Chargers, which is a punishment all its own. Golf and the NHL are still watchable.
    If anyone 10 years ago told me i would walk away from most sports, I would have insisted you were absolutely crazy. But here I am. The surprising part is that I don’t miss it at all. So those woke ass communist shitbags better wake up.

  12. Great article, Bobby, and your analysis is on the money. Stopped watching more than a year ago and no need to ever go back. A once great idea, great brand, innovative programming…now slowly being dismantled to make the mob happy. The mob that has no interest in sports. How ironic and moronic. Thanks, Bobby…keep up the great work!

  13. Spot on. When I was a young broadcaster I aspired to get to ESPN Radio because it was the gold standard. Mike & Mike, SVP & Rusillo, Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, etc. That is an amazing radio lineup. Now, outside Greeny, it’s garbage. I can’t remember the last time I listened to ESPN Radio. I only watch ESPN TV for college sports and Game Day.

  14. Am I the only one that finds Cowherd essentially the exact same as the trash on ESPN? He ball washes LeBron daily and talks NBA constantly and his takes are awful (he picked the Ravens to go 16-0). To me Ben Maller and Clay are the only two sports shows outside of live events I can stomach to listen to or watch.

  15. Great article that is right on point. While I used to watch ESPN on a daily basis, I can’t remember the last time I watched anything on ESPN other than live college football. The condescension exhibited by their hosts makes their shows unwatchable. Sadly for ESPN, I think most of their former viewers don’t even miss them. I know that I am surprised at how easily I have transitioned to other programming. But I do miss Jason’s Speak for Yourself show on FS1. That is another show I have not watched since he left.

  16. I watch a few live college games, MNF and then SVP after those games. Other than that ESPN does not exist to me. Years ago I had a feeling that they were going to destroy sports and I was right. The only people that watch it now are brainwashed, woke goofballs. Thank God for the Outkick website, podcasts and Mad Dog Sports radio. Other than live events, that’s all I need when it comes to sports and sports coverage anymore.

  17. Indeed, more kudos from me! Such BS spewing from no-names is something “ain’t nobody got time for.” Hope ESPN continues to suffer as long as they continue to forget why they exist – to show and talk about sports, not how woke or virtuous they are.

    I live in NC and local sports guys are just as liberal. Sickening. I have let them know several times what I think of their discussions, but it continues. I am not convinced radio ratings are legit.

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