Sports publishers continue to grapple with politics

Politics has always been likened to sports: Elections are “horse races,” policy squabbles are “inside baseball,” and debates feature “knockout” performances and “home runs.” While political rhetoric is happy to draw from sports for the most apt analogies, new data from ESPN says viewers want their sports strictly isolated from the politics of the day — and advertisers agree.

The network did a study in June that found that 74% of fans across party lines said they prefer not to hear about politics on ESPN, said ESPN spokesperson Diane Lamb. “Agreement with this statement is shared by avid fans (85% agree) as well as both Democrats (69%) and Republicans (84%),” wrote Lamb in an email.

Advertisers also seem hesitant about mixing sports and politics — especially live sports. A Morning Consult poll found in February that two-thirds of people didn’t want politics mixed with the Super Bowl. According to the Sports Business Journal, NBC has been promoting the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as a politics-free space.

ESPN’s business has shown strong growth in recent months. In parent company Disney’s strong earnings report earlier this month, ESPN reported lower viewership (most likely attributable to cord-cutting) but higher advertising revenue, higher advertising rates and increased affiliate revenue. And more than 2 million people have already signed up for ESPN+, the network’s over-the-top service.

The ESPN poll results come in the aftermath of a high-profile kerfuffle between ESPN and one of its hosts, Dan Le Batard, who criticized President Trump. Last year, this no-politics-on-the-air-unless-it-relates-to-sports policy was instated after SportsCenter host Jemele Hill criticized Trump as well as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for threatening to bench any player who disrespected the American flag by kneeling during the National Anthem.

Le Batard and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro have reconciled privately, and Le Batard is back on the air, for now avoiding the fate Hill suffered under Pitaro’s predecessor John Skipper. But while the controversy has quelled, the no-politics-unless-its-sports-related policy is still in place. Clearly, the Le Batard controversy signals that employee frustrations are high and that could have further ramifications on the business as the election season ramps up.

ESPN’s no-politics policy comes from the very top: Disney’s Bob Iger, who handpicked Pitaro, believed ESPN “leaned too much into politics” and it was hurting its public perception, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. While ESPN, long the darling of the pay-TV bundle, has faced pressures from cord-cutting, Deadpsin reported that ESPN’s subscriber losses were not due to its on-air coverage of politics but were a product of the cord-cutting phenomenon. Between June 2015 and May 2018, they found, ESPN, NFL Network, NBCSN, NBA TV, MLB Network, and the Golf Channel all experienced substantial subscriber losses (NBCSN fared the best, only losing 191,000 subscribers during that time).

“Does a Dan Le Batard rant or Jemele Hill tweet build an audience or erode it? From a business perspective, it’s that simple. Pitaro and [ESPN parent company] Disney have their views, likely supported by polling, focus groups and who knows what. They’re right — to a point,” George Washington University sports management professor Mark Hyman said. “There’s no place for talking down to an audience or for denigrating its views, political or otherwise. But sports fans are news and opinion junkies. Can you really run a network these days that ignores Kaepernick, Trump, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and Paid Patriotism without becoming ‘sports-talk lite’?”

Andrew C. Billings, executive director of the University of Alabama Program in Sport Communication, acknowledges that “people look to sports for distraction” but finds there’s a lot of news that falls in the gray area between sports and politics.

“When an international player’s travel visa is delayed, this is noteworthy on the game, but has political undertones,” Billings said in an email. “When one speaks of the lack of diversity in coach hiring practices, those principles are tinged in politics. When one discusses whether the US Women’s National Team is fairly compensated, there are politics that undergird these principles about gender equity and general equality.”

Billings insinuated that there are financial repercussions for avoiding politics.

“The true issue to navigate in terms of financial viability appears to be if/when a Kaepernick-type scenario entered the equation,” Billings said. “In such a circumstance, ESPN needs to assure that their policy is nimble enough to ensure that they live up to the moniker of the ‘worldwide leader in sports’ by covering the biggest stories of the day.”

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