Man, ESPN just can’t seem to get it together.
In light of the Jemele Hill controversy this week (in which the host of SC6 — formerly SportsCenter — tweeted that Donald Trump is a white supremacist), it’s helpful to review all of the problems the media juggernaut has created for itself. In March, I wrote The Top 5 Reasons ESPN’s Ratings Are in Freefall. Things have only gotten worse since that time, with over 100 highly paid on-air personalities and other employees having been laid off in April in a cost-cutting move.
ESPN seems to want to continue to double down on everything it’s doing wrong. The results are predictable for anyone who isn’t on the mothership. It’s inconceivable that parent company Disney is pleased with ESPN’s steadfast refusal to reverse course.
Here are five more reasons the network is failing:
1. Monday Night Football ratings are still down
The ratings are in for the opening weekend of the NFL and the downward spiral continues. While NBC’s Sunday Night Football was up slightly, the first match-up in ESPN’s Monday Night Football doubleheader was down 14 percent. The second game was also down by a smaller margin. And no, the decline can’t all be blamed on Hurricane Irma.
The rights fees that ESPN paid to the NFL and NBA are an albatross around their neck. Those contracts are continuing to produce declining returns. The bottom line is that ESPN bid against themselves for those rights contracts, causing them to be locked into contracts way more exorbitant than necessary. Of course, ESPN probably couldn’t have been expected to foresee these declines at the time they were bidding. The NFL and NBA were juggernauts — just like ESPN. A good portion of the decline comes from structural problems within each sport.
The NFL continues to allow its players to protest during the National Anthem, causing even more viewers to break their football habit. For its part, ESPN continues to highlight the protests (more on that in a moment). ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast was also beset with serious broadcasting problems owing to their insistence on diversity over quality.
Meanwhile, NBA playoff ratings were up on a per-game basis, but the complete lack of competitiveness in the playoffs led to far fewer games and an overall drop in ad revenue. The level of competition likely won’t be increasing anytime soon.
2. ESPN isn’t entertaining
The NBA on TNT is actually a fun watch. In fact, I watch more for the studio show than for the games themselves. With goofballs Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley taking never-ending shots at one another, the show can be addictive.
Absolutely nothing like that exists on ESPN on the television side. ESPN’s NBA pregame show is sometimes painfully uninteresting, especially in comparison to their competition. Oh, I suppose Scott Van Pelt is a funny dude, and I have enjoyed what he brings to the table since he was on ESPN Radio. His rendition of SportsCenter is about the best that can be done with that once great franchise. There just seems like no compelling reason to watch.
What Jemele Hill and Michael Smith have done in their rebranding of SportsCenter, now called SC6 (because it airs at 6 p.m. Eastern. Get it?), has created unwatchable dreck. The ratings bear this out, showing a 20 percent drop from the previous year, when the old model of SportsCenter aired. It’s not JUST because the two hosts are social justice warriors who share controversial opinions on a regular basis. Much of it simply reflects a blind spot in ESPN management. Hill and Smith just aren’t engaging. In fact, they’re off-putting for a large swath of American viewers.
Not exactly a winning formula.
3. The model is antiquated — nobody needs SportsCenter anymore
This may be the most important factor going completely unconsidered by the brass at ESPN. SportsCenter was a juggernaut — twenty years ago, when it was anchored by Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Long before Olbermann became famous for getting fired by reasonable people, he teamed up with Patrick to give an entertaining nightly sports report. This was in an era when America’s insatiable appetite for sports information could not be satisfied. This was before Twitter, Facebook, smartphone apps, even MySpace.
Thus, SportsCenter was the anchor program. They even used to run commercials asking which time slot of SportsCenter you were addicted to. Of course, that was when I was in college… an eternity ago.
Today, all anyone needs to do to get the information they crave is to pick up their phone and open an app. You don’t need to turn on your TV and wait for the information to scroll by, or for it to be told to you by a talking head. You can just go get it.
That makes programs like SportsCenter completely dispensable, and no amount of ESPN executives tinkering with the model will return it to its former glory.
4. They’re doubling down on alienating potential audiences
Jemele Hill is just the latest example of what happens when ESPN prioritizes staying woke over entertaining its audience. ESPN spent the entire NFL off-season finding new ways to make unemployed backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick a news item. Memo to ESPN brass: No matter whether you agree or disagree with the message, lectures aren’t entertaining. It wears out your audience pretty quickly.
Now, I have a confession to make. Despite their constant focus on race in sports, and their endless false premises about white people and institutional racism, I actually find Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones entertaining. They’re funny — especially Le Batard. I am a bit of a sports radio junkie, and I’m constantly on the hunt for something that isn’t formulaic and stale. I’ll tune in to The Dan Le Batard Show fairly frequently in the mornings. He’s at his best when he’s poking fun at and mocking the standard sports talk show. He’s at his worst, however, when he starts lecturing about his views on race. That’s when I turn the dial. I suspect I’m not alone.
5. Yes, people are noticing the double standards
PJ Media’s Stephen Kruiser did an excellent job this week pointing out the double standards employed by ESPN in the Jemele Hill controversy. ESPN executives treated Linda Cohn and Curt Schilling far differently, for similar — or lesser — offenses. In Cohn’s case, it was merely acknowledging the point that ESPN is ignoring its constituency, leading to a suspension:
ESPN stalwart Linda Cohn lamented the network’s non-sports wander into politics in an interview last spring, noting that the “core group” of viewers who made ESPN so successful were being ignored.
Schilling was fired outright for retweeting a meme indicating his agreement with North Carolina’s bathroom law. Hill, on the other hand, received a reprimand for calling the president of the United States a white supremacist. Hill’s non-apology apology only made things worse:
My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional.
Let us be crystal clear on this point: Hill is not sorry that she offended at least half the country. Schilling offended a minority of Americans. Cohn merely acknowledged, without taking a side either way, that some of their audience had bled off because of politics. Schilling got fired; Cohn was suspended; Hill was on the air the very next day.
Is it any wonder that right-thinking people are turning off ES(JW)PN?