Amid absurd claims that ESPN’s so-called liberal bias has caused a drop in viewership in recent months—an opportunistic and disingenuous reading of the network’s financial troubles, which were primarily provoked by the Worldwide Leader’s failure to adapt quickly enough to technological innovations and the fact that it pays huge sums for the rights to things like Monday Night Football games no one cares about—ESPN released certain findings from a two-year long research project about viewers’ opinions on ideological bias.
Cherry-picked figures published in ESPN’s press release show that 64 percent of respondents “believe ESPN is getting it right in terms of mixing sports news and political issues.” They also say that the proportion of viewers who see a bias in the programming has not changed since October 2016. ESPN didn’t specify the percentage in the release, but a spokesman told Deadspin the proportions were 28 percent in October and 30 percent now, a change which is not statistically significant.
The release said that “of those who see a bias, 30 percent actually believe ESPN expresses a conservative viewpoint.” The release also omitted the percentage of viewers who thought the network expressed a liberal viewpoint, but the spokesman said that figure is 63 percent.
Finally, the release said the findings showed that conservatives and Republicans actually rate ESPN higher now than they did in October:
Using a 1-10 scale (with 10 being the best score), strong conservatives rank ESPN at 7.2 and Republicans give a 7.1, both up 0.5 from October. That compares to liberals and Democrats (each at 7.0), and is close to an 8, which is considered “highly rated” (45 percent of the total sample scored ESPN 8-10).
ESPN drew this conclusion from the research:
Do some Americans disagree with how certain societal issues are discussed on ESPN platforms when they intersect with the world of sports? No doubt.
Does it affect their viewing behavior? Not in any material way.
Hear that, advertisers? Investors, you listening? ESPN’s conclusion from the findings is very likely correct. But there’s another conclusion to be drawn from ESPN touting these stats: The network wants everyone to know it’s not a bulwark of social justice warriors spouting liberal opinions. (Just look that those ratings from conservatives!) Maybe it’s no longer beneficial for ESPN to be seen as the progressive network that had the outspokenly liberal stars of Hamilton perform at its annual presentation to advertisers just last year and then went on to position itself as the standard bearer for inclusion and diversity. Maybe its “liberal persona,” which played well last spring—way, way back when no one actually thought that a dusty stump of a reality TV star who said horrible things about just about everyone who wasn’t a white man could become president—is no longer “good for business.” Maybe, now, as Warriors fan Kevin Draper predicted, ESPN feels the need to play down that carefully curated part of its business model.
Jemele Hill and Michael Smith are SportsCenter anchors; Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre are getting their own show; and other faces who aren’t white and male are still prominently featured on the network. Shows like Around the Horn, Highly Questionable, and Outside the Lines still regularly engage with political and social issues. All of this is happening; ESPN just seems less inclined to brag about it now.
ESPN’s presentation to advertisers this year mostly steered clear of talking about “diversity” and “cultural change” and “politics.” The research findings that ESPN released today, along with the network’s announcement that Hank Williams Jr., the musician who was removed from his gig as the Monday Night Football opener when he compared Obama to Hitler, was retuning to the show (ESPN said the timing of the research release and the Williams announcement was not coordinated), is just another indication of something. ESPN, perhaps drawn by the bottom line, seems to be sliding back to the status quo. The right thing aligns with what makes sense for exactly as long as it does.