ESPN, Politics, and Stipe Miocic: While We’re Waiting

Hey everyone welcome to my week-ending WWW. I’m using this post to highlight the podcast I did with Jamie Meklemburg about Stipe Miocic’s upcoming title defense against Junior Dos Santos on Saturday night. That won’t be the main topic, however, as I wanted to dig into the ESPN / Politics conversation now that most of what’s going to be said has been said.

ESPN’s intersection of business and politics

Now that we’ve had a week or so to let all the news settle around ESPN and all the unfortunate job losses, it’s time that I want to discuss politics at ESPN. Scott wrote about it the Monday after, and it sparked a lot of good conversation in the comments. I’ve been listening to podcasts discuss it for the past week as well from Bomani Jones and Richard Deitsch to Bill Simmons and ESPN expert James Andrew Miller. After thinking about it, I’ve got some thoughts.

ESPN has slanted liberal in recent times as its talent has gotten more vocal on Twitter. I don’t believe there’s an ESPN memo telling them that their corporate line is to be liberal, but there’s no doubt that some of the most outspoken voices on ESPN slant that way. Combine that with the divisive political times we live in and the communication style ushered in by social media, and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some reality to the perception.

It’s also not surprising that a large number of people that lean right felt like the blood-lettings at ESPN were just desserts for a network alienating some of its customers. That’s the way indignation works. You feel you’re underrepresented or that the world has changed and forgotten you, and you’ll lash out at your enemies even on their worst days. We (sometimes) hate this about ourselves, but it’s part of human nature. Despite that lashing out, and my understanding of it as part of human nature, you can’t connect the dots between ESPN’s loss of business and their political leanings.

It reminds me of when LeBron James went to Miami, and his Q-Score was at an all-time low after “The Decision.” Immediately following his ill-fated ESPN special announcing his departure to Miami, LeBron James’ Q-Score dropped 41.6-percent. He became a heel and a villain to a vast part of the population that once loved him. While that felt good for a minute to many jilted Cleveland Cavaliers fans, it had nothing to do with the business of LeBron James.

His endorsement deals with the likes of Vitamin Water, McDonald’s and most importantly, Nike, remained unchanged. A report from Forbes that attempts to calculate LeBron’s off-court earnings indicates that LeBron’s endorsement cash went from $27 million in 2009-10 to $33 million and up to $40 million in the two subsequent years. LeBron’s business was divorced from his Q-Score, and I feel something similar is going on with ESPN. Their Q-Score might be down because they don’t have that easy, uncomplicated mass appeal that comes from being apolitical. To try and connect that to business losses makes little sense, however.

There might be mass departures from people watching ESPN, but the structure of the cable / satellite world is detached from whether or not people watch a channel. I pay for a lot of channels that I don’t watch, including some channels I used to watch and quit watching. Just because some people that used to watch ESPN now dislike ESPN or stop watching SportsCenter doesn’t mean that they get out of the pre-negotiated carriage fees that are part of the hefty bundle cable price. But ESPN is bleeding business, so isn’t it reasonable to assume that this could be tied to their lesser popularity, which it could be argued is fueled by its leanings politically?

In a word… no.

Let’s try and connect the dots a little bit. ESPN is facing pressure due to cord-cutting. The demographics of people who are cutting the cord are younger people. Streaming Media did a poll in 2015 that indicated about 31-percent of 25-to-34-year-olds had a paid TV subscription. It’s safe to assume a paid subscription would include ESPN. 57-percent of 35-to-44-year-olds purported to have a subscription. That number jumps up to 65-percent for people in the 55-to-64-year-old age bracket.

Why does it matter that younger people are more likely to be cutting the cord? They also happen to be more likely to agree with liberal politics that are supposedly ruining ESPN’s business. One poll I read indicated that so-called millennial voters voted for Hillary Clinton 55-percent to Donald Trump’s 37-percent.1 The exact people that would seem to support the left-leaning politics of ESPN personalities are also the ones that seem to be cratering its actual business of collecting TV carriage fees from expensive TV subscription packages.

It’s also possible that even left-leaning people who would agree with the tone of ESPN personalities don’t want their politics mixed with sports just like their right-leaning counterparts who feel antagonized, but even if everyone agrees that they’d like ESPN to “stick to sports!!11!!” it’s unlikely that those dots are connected to ESPN’s bottom line. Both things might be true that ESPN’s Q-Score is down, and their business is also suffering, but there’s no causation to the correlation due to how carriage fees are structured in the TV subscription business.

The real facts are that people are cutting the cord because they have Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and any number of other options to pump entertainment options to their televisions. Additionally, they’re using screens like phones and iPads to a greater degree where traditional cable and satellite providers have yet to make a big impact compared to Netflix. Sports fans have more highlights available to them than ever before via social media, league phone apps, and other channels other than ESPN, so much so that every day the “fear of missing out” that has kept people subscribed to cable is dissipating more and more every day.

It used to be impossible to be a sports fan without a cable package. Invariably that cable package included ESPN. It’s still difficult at times to be a sports fan without a cable package, but it’s also never been easier. That inflection point of culture and technology is the battleground. It’s the place where ESPN is marginalized as a TV network. Ironically it’s also the place that enabled ESPN personalities to break the mold and become more political. The political part, however, is almost definitely not responsible for ESPN’s business downfall.

On Stipe Miocic’s title defense…

I spoke with Stipe’s friend Jamie Meklemburg on the podcast as we’ve done from time-to-time over the years. He discussed all the ins and outs of the fight this Saturday night in Dallas as Stipe defends his championship belt against Junior Dos Santos in Dallas.

  1. Third party / independent was 8-percent. []