I am spending this weekend doing one of my favorite things — watching football. One of the primary reasons I can wallow in hours upon hours of NFL draft coverage is a little invention nearly 40 years ago called ESPN.
Sports fandom quickly went from temporary escape to permanent vacation because of how sport after sport found new ways to project itself into relevance and relationship. The draft, for example, was catapulted from glorified agate-type fodder to one of the most-watched sporting events each year. Thanks to ESPN, sports went from a black-and-white world of possibility to one suddenly seen in color. We weren’t in Kansas any more.
But ESPN’s all-consuming vitality is no longer what it once was, as demonstrated last week by the laying off of a slew of on-air network personalities. As with the newspaper and radio industries before it, television is now neck-deep in the process of trying to figure out how to survive in a digital, on-demand world. And that means pink slips and restructuring were almost certainly going to happen at ESPN no matter what the network said about progressive agitprop like Michael Sam, Bruce Jenner, and Colin Kaepernick. A business model built on subscriber fees in an era of cord-cutting and app viewers is like trying to sell cassettes and CDs in an iTunes world.
So no, my righty friends, politics is not primarily why what was once the most powerful brand in American media has imploded.
That being said, the fact that ESPN’s talking heads were apparently allowed to think one thing, and one thing only, about those fake social justice warriors has turned a tough loss into an absolute rout. Apparently people don’t like their sports constantly peppered with crazed non-sequiturs like poems from a cop killer. In a nation of 321 million people, I’ll go out on a limb and predict exactly none of them ever said this: “After I check on my fantasy baseball team, I’m gonna swing over to ESPN.com to read some feminist poetry.”
But that’s the progressive hive mind for you. Because that is a place that can’t help but confuse truth with tyranny and compassion with chaos. And when it comes to progressivism, ESPN has shot right past “safe space” and headed directly to “ministry of information.”
“Nonsense,” those very same progressives are now crying, “this was a changing of the business climate and nothing more.”
Never mind it seems counter-intuitive to spend three days vehemently defending yourself against something you claim is delusional. After all, if a huge number of people didn’t believe this about you, there’d be no reason to spend three days denying it. On top of that, how millions of your potential customers perceive you is the truth, because they’re the reason you’re supposed to be doing this. Then doubling down, by condescendingly telling all those potential customers they’re not seeing the political bias they’re seeing, only confirms that they’re seeing the political bias they’re seeing.
So yes, my lefty friends, turning ESPN into “The Young Turks” the past few years did, sadly, accelerate the demise of a dying business model. But don’t take just my word for it. Linda Cohn had been with ESPN for a quarter century prior to the cutbacks, and she said, “If anybody wants to ignore [the role partisan politics played in ESPN’s fall] they’re blind.”
By politicizing sports, ESPN weaponized it. For example, many of us first heard the name Keith Olbermann from his legendary stint doing the Sunday night “SportsCenter” with Dan Patrick back in the day. We had no idea at the time that he was basically a crazed neo-Marxist. We just thought he was damned funny and knew his stuff, and we were crushed when that must-see TV team was no more. Yet when ESPN tried to bring Olbermann back in 2013, he flamed out, because he wanted to do MSESPN and viewers gave it a hard pass. Just as they’re doing with nearly all of ESPN’s non-live event programming now.
See, the progressive prophets of smug at ESPN took an area where Americans of various beliefs usually set their differences aside, and injected it with the all-too-familiar toxic charm of the fake news brigade. Scarlet letters were handed out to the likes of Curt Schilling and Chris Broussard, as if opposing views were a plague-filled contagion. As someone who has appeared on MSNBC at least 30 times in the last five years, I feel as if my viewpoint is treated more fairly during a live hit on that network than while watching ESPN’s “debate shows” for 20 minutes on an elliptical at the gym.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
It’s simple math, really. When you do sports television for the meager 15 percent of American counties Hillary Clinton won, you lose viewers. Especially when the technology gives viewers options they didn’t previously have to go elsewhere. The absolute worst time to weaponize your product is when people realize they can live without it — and that’s exactly what ESPN did.
I say all this with love. Some good people, regardless of their politics, lost their jobs in the undertow this week, and I take no pleasure in that. As an adult, I’ve watched ESPN more than all other networks combined. It’s chronicled some of my very favorite moments in life. Sports/ESPN was an important escape for me during what was often a troubled childhood.
Now ESPN has become the thing legions of die-hard sports fans want to escape from.