ESPN's Ratings Are Not Up Because It's 'Sticking to Sports'

The Worldwide Leader's numbers had been in decline for years and the recent uptick is a more complicated story
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Photo credit Mike Windle
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ESPN's new president is taking a victory lap after submitting to bad faith critics and the $14 billion NFL. At the height of the Kaepernick controversy, right-wing snowflakes who were offended about people on their sports channel defending black players' rights to protest police brutality created the false narrative that ESPN's recent business shortfalls were caused by their supposed embrace of radical liberal politics.

Meanwhile, the network's relationship with the NFL had reportedly reached a nadir, following years of dogged reporting about the league's concussion crisis and Sean McDonough's proclivity to criticize referees.

Enter Jimmy Pitaro. The Disney exec was called upon to replace John Skipper, who resigned from his post in December 2017 due to substance abuse issues. One of Skipper's initiatives was diversifying ESPN's airwaves, which led to increased on-air roles for Bomani Jones, Dan Le Batard, Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and other commentators not built out of the ex-jock or traditional white guy sportswriter mold. Skipper also created "SC6," the much-maligned rebranded edition of SportsCenter anchored by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

ESPN's ratings and subscriber numbers had been in decline for years -- long before all of these alleged radical leftists gained prominent on-air roles. From 2012-17, ESPN's TV subscribers dropped 13-percent, which is actually lower than the 16-percent industry average over that same period. Their ratings were falling, too. The WorldWide Leader saw a 7-percent drop in viewership from 2014 to 2015.

Back then, every NFL player was standing proudly for the national anthem and Curt Schilling was still calling games on "Sunday Night Baseball." Nobody attributed ESPN's yearly declines to politics or even its on-air content.

But then Hill and Smith were installed to take over SportsCenter in early 2017. Ratings continued to fall, and they served as juicy scapegoats. Never mind that, as media critic Richard Deitsch points out, ratings for the 6:00 p.m. edition of SportsCenter are largely reflective of its PTI lead-in. Almost all of ESPN's numbers were down, including "Monday Night Football," but blaming "SC6" fit the false narrative perpetuated in Tucker Carlson's and Clay Travis' culture war ecosystem. So that's what happened. Then Hill called Donald Trump a "white supremacist" on Twitter, which prompted the White House to campaign for her firing.

For a brief span, Hill became one of Gerry Callahan's favorite boogeymen -- or in this case, "boogeywomen," -- right up there with Hillary Clinton and Lizzie Warren. (It's worth noting the Hill-Trump Twitter episode was never discussed on "SC6," which flies in the face of the perception it was a "political show," or anything even resembling one.)

Yet, it seems like Pitaro agrees with the falsehood ESPN turned into sportier version of MSNBC. In a recent fawning Q&A with the LA Times, he declares the network is straying far away from politics. "Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics," he said. "My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don't believe they are confused."

That quote matches the party line that's emanated from Bristol, Conn. over the last several months. In December, ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson touted his mission of returning SportsCenter to its highlight-centric roots in a very complimentary Washington Post piece, an obvious shot at Hill.

"I think we miscalculated a little bit," Williamson said. "The perception became that you could just roll a talent out there and it doesn't matter what he or she is saying -- that the content didn't matter. I just never believed that."

Much like LA Times writer Stephen Battaglio, the Post's Ben Strauss takes Williamson at his word.

ESPN execs are buoyed by the network's recent ratings uptick, with studio shows such as SportsCenterFirst Take, and Get Up! all seeing year-to-year increases. That could be largely due to the fact ESPN's signature live events -- NFL, MLB, college football -- are all up over last year, too. But that doesn't sell as effectively. So Pitaro brings the rebound back to his supposed war for sports purity.

"Every time we lean too much into that politically charged commentary we are alienating our fans," Pitaro said at some sports business summit in October. "So that is clear and convincing data that I've seen repeatedly. And so we've been very vocal that that's not what we do, that's not who we are. I'm talking about pure politics."

It's hard to decipher what Pitaro means by "pure politics." Surely, Tim Cowlishaw and Ramona Shelbourne never sparred about the EPA's regulatory policies. Pitaro must be referring to debates about Trump calling kneeling NFL players "sons of bitches" or players of color skipping the annual White House visit.

Those, of course, are not purely political issues at all. They have everything to do with sports, which have always reflected our social landscape.

ESPN is still talking about those stories, by the way, as well as others. Last month, Will Cain vigorously defended deceased singer Kate Smith for singing racist ditties, laughably comparing it to Barack Obama's past opposition of same-sex marriage.

For whatever reason, Callahan wasn't ranting and raving about that monologue, like he did whenever Hill defended Kaepernick and bashed the league's owners.

ESPN doesn't do much criticizing of the NFL at all these days, especially on MNF. ESPN replaced the candid McDonough with the obsequious Joe Tessitore last season, as coordinating producer Jay Rotham said he thought the previous iteration of the broadcasting became too much of a "downer." Tessitore, Booger and Wit seldom critiqued the league last season, and when they did, it happened in the fourth quarter of a blowout game.

Disney chairman Bob Iger seems to be buying in, saying the ESPN brand is in a better place now. If that's the case, they achieved it through submission. The positive coverage is fleeting, but the precedent is permanent.

- Alex Reimer