ESPN’s decision to lay off as many as 100 people on Wednesday, while expected, set off rounds of media commentary about the company’s future. Some on the political right saw the layoffs as a symptom of a specific problem: what they perceive as ESPN’s “politicization of sports” and its “too liberal” political stances.
In this view, ESPN’s coverage of events like LGBTQ athletes coming out and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and its occasional refusal to “stick to sports” have turned off droves of viewers looking for an escape from the real world.
No one trumpets this view louder than Clay Travis, a Fox Sports writer who was back at it on Wednesday morning. ESPN’s collapse, Travis wrote, has been “aided” by its turn toward liberal politics.
“Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football,” Travis wrote. “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
But Travis is wrong on this point. There’s a much simpler explanation for the cuts.
The self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has indeed lost more than 12 million subscribers since 2011, according to Nielsen estimates, and those losses have accelerated in recent months. In October and November alone, ESPN lost more than 1 million subscribers.
But such losses aren’t abnormal at cable channels as Americans’ television viewing habits change. In 2016, 70 percent of cable channels lost subscribers, with average declines between 2 and 3 percent, meaning ESPN exceeded the average but not drastically so.
For sports channels in particular, the outlook is just as dire. In October and November 2016, when ESPN lost those million-plus subscribers, just three of the sports cable channels that Nielsen monitors each month ― the NFL Network, the Golf Channel and BeIN Sport Espanol ― gained subscribers. The rest ― everyone from NBC Sports to the MLB Network and NBA TV ― suffered, with many of them taking proportionally larger hits than ESPN.
The fate of Fox Sports was no different. Over those two months, Fox Sports 1 lost 573,000 subscribers, according to Nielsen. Fox Sports 2 lost 1.4 million. In February of this year, ESPN lost 422,000 subscribers. FS1, which was already in fewer homes, exceeded that drop, losing 565,000. FS1 had spent much of the last few years gaining on ESPN, but that trend reversed itself recently: February was the third consecutive month in which FS1 lost more subscribers than ESPN (though FS2 has been gaining subscribers). And over the last two years, Fox Sports has undertaken multiple rounds of job cuts itself.
In other words, cable networks that aren’t allegedly seeking to spread the liberal gospel through sports are losing too.
Still, National Review Online’s Dan McLaughlin attempted to build on Travis’ argument, lecturing ESPN about its supposed political leanings. “‘Stick to sports’ is not just good manners for sports journalism,” McLaughlin wrote Wednesday, “it’s good business advice.”
“ESPN’s layoffs demonstrate that the network understands it has a business problem,” McLaughlin concluded. “It’s too soon to tell if it also understands it has a politics problem. ... But its business model allows subscribers to vote with their feet in a way that has an immediate bottom-line impact. Maybe it should start listening.”
Like Travis, McLaughlin is projecting his own beliefs onto ESPN and ignoring the basic reality facing the network and the broader cable industry. Set aside the fact that ESPN is not particularly “liberal” ― and hardly monolithic ― when it comes to political issues and their intersection with sports, even if some of its loudest and most prominent voices are. Just run the numbers on its business.
The company, which charges cable providers roughly $7 a month per subscriber just to carry its flagship channel, derives as much as two-thirds of its annual revenue from subscriber fees, so the departure of those subscribers is a direct hit on its bottom line. Advertising rates are also falling. Meanwhile, ESPN is paying more to broadcast live sports. It will spend $7.3 billion on broadcast rights fees to major sports leagues this year.
ESPN got some major gambles wrong, and with revenues dropping and costs increasing, something had to give. On Wednesday, that something was 100 employees ― even if, as Deadspin’s Tom Ley noted, it won’t be enough mathematically to do anything more than temporarily reassure ESPN’s corporate overlords at Disney.
ESPN’s losses are bigger and have a bigger impact than those of other channels in part because of its own business decisions and in part because ESPN is a bigger company that has a bigger impact on the industry around it.
Sure, it’s possible a handful of people saw Michael Sam kiss his boyfriend and, instead of celebrating with him, decided that was too much for them. A few other viewers may have cut the cord because certain ESPN personalities actually discussed the meaning of Kaepernick’s protest instead of simply blasting him.
But half-baked theories about the politicization of sports really only work for those who prefer to ignore that big-league sports has an inherently political side. The reality is that ESPN is facing the same uncertain future as the rest of the cable industry for many of the same reasons.