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.