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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 [Hill] 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

Bobby Burack covers any news story that deserves attention but focuses on media. His interests include reading Stephen King novels, avoiding traffic on the road, and pretending to solve true-crime mysteries. He still believes Cersei should've won and encourages everyone to always question the news.

11 Comments

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  1. Will this doc explain his all at once transformation from wannabe playboy (see GQ 2013 issue) to wannabe social justice martyr (see GQ 2017 issue)? Or how it all flipped once he got benched for Blaine Gabbart? Or how all the media outlets were dancing on his football grave as another finished RPO QB (just google Colin Kaepernick benched 2015 or 2016 San Francisco 49ers season preview) that are now praising him like the second coming of Ali?

  2. I liked BoJo and LaBatard on HQ. Papi is great. Then, I gave High Noon a shot and it was ok. It wasn’t until I found out how much Bomani hates this country and everything else, I gave up the whole bunch. I do miss Papi. There’s someone that needs his own show!

  3. The Erase ESPN movement is booming. Here’s the QUICKEST WAY TO GET THEIR ATTENTION:
    Delete the APP from your phone, tablets, laptops. On cable, remove all ESPN channels
    from your favorites list.
    Remember, they will do what the market will bear. So let’s make it unbearable.

  4. For me it all began about 5-6 years ago.

    It seemed that every time EsPn had a show or personalities I could watch, they would ruin it or fire someone. I hung on for a couple more years, as if I mattered to them, but ‘mike and mike’ went down so fast, that I left all of ESPN a couple years ago. All the way, except for the Last Dance and occasionally misfiring my remote and landing on a show. Or maybe watching MNF with sound off.

    And That’s hard to do. I love all sports. And I keep track of many. To avoid sPn like I do is not easy. It’s a pain. It’s easier to take a bike ride and listen on the radio app.

    That brand is ruined. Like CNNmsnbcBs

  5. ESPN hasn’t resembled the ESPN that most sports fans my age remember…..the fun Dan Patrick non-woke Keith Olbermann big show SportsCenter with lots of highlights & sports talk. Nowadays I avoid ESPN like the plague unless GameDay in the fall or actual games are on. If I had the option of removing it from my cable package, I would. They have no actual writers who I enjoy reading and their radio lineup is straight garbage. Can’t wait for Outkick to get their podcast network going. The VIP membership is well worth the price of admission.

  6. What blows my mind is that Dan Le Betatd who is a proud person of Cuban decent can be so into the socialist nonsense that ESPN continues to move towards. As a person of Cuban decent myself I feel especially passionate against all things pro socialism. My guess is that fake as all get out Dan Le Betatd will have no problem working alongside a Che Guevara supporter like Kap. But I guess all us idiot Cubans who still remember what our families suffered at the hands of Castro aren’t smart enough to understand like holier than now Dan Le Betatd and Kap.

  7. I haven’t had ESPN for years, and the last time I listened to any of their radio shows it was Mike & Mike in the morning, long before it all crashed and burned. I have no idea who some of the people mentioned in this article are, and I have to say, it sounds like I haven’t missed much of anything. I’d say, “What a shame,” but honestly, it’s not. Nothing would be more satisfying to see MSESPN crash and burn while simultaneously watching Outkick rise up and take the reins.

  8. Thanks for compiling all of this into one article. I really liked the “shootout at the ok corral” intro music and camerawork. But that’s about it. Both Bomani and Pablo seemed like they don’t play sports at all and were just social bloggers that could only get a job talking sports. It hurts too when their opinions match every other commentator’s opinion at other ESPN shows. This is why I like Whitlock. Nobody’s going to say what he says.

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