Sparta Report

How ESPN Became Consumed by Politics

What’s interesting about this article is that no one seems to be able to give a clear reason for why ESPN suddenly became rabidly partisan to the left:

Executives at the sports-media giant wanted to seek out new audiences by spicing up shows with opinionated analysis and debate, including on SportsCenter, its struggling news and highlights franchise.

But the amount and intensity of political expression generated sharp internal disagreements over whether ESPN was appropriately taking part in the broader national conversation, or whether top executives were encouraging a divisive company culture and giving too much leeway to hosts to promote left-leaning views, both on air and on social media.

Well before Ms. Hill’s tweet controversy, network icon Bob Ley had approached Mr. Skipper to say “there was a problem with balance internally,” people familiar with the matter said. Reached for comment, Mr. Ley said Mr. Skipper “was always extremely receptive.”

Why ESPN found itself torn up by the nation’s partisan politics traces back to its fundamental business challenge. Its status as cable TV’s most expensive channel had become a liability. As consumers grew fed up with their monthly cable prices, big cable distributors began offering discounted packages that didn’t include the network. Many consumers opted for those offers, while others cut the cord entirely, leading ESPN to shed 16 million subscribers over seven years.

There is broad agreement within ESPN that covering sports news means sometimes tackling hot topics like politics and race. The internal debate centered on the tonnage of such coverage, conduct on social media and whether ESPN as a company should take political stances.

Mr. Skipper sought to promote progressive social values, but often his moves came off as overtly political, staffers said. Under Mr. Skipper, ESPN awarded a prestigious “ESPY” award for courage to Michael Sam, the first openly gay athlete drafted into the NFL, and another to Caitlyn Jenner for coming out as a transgender woman.

Conservative ESPN staffers grew frustrated by increased political commentary, including from ESPN executives during the presidential election, and worried about #BoycottESPN hashtags cropping up on Twitter. “Our viewers turned to us for sports,” said Jay Crawford, a longtime SportsCenter host who was laid off a year ago. “Realizing there’s never been a time in my lifetime where our country has been more divided, I saw no value in adding to that division.”

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