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Why Is ESPN Obsessed With Its Political Perception?

In the business of sports radio, we love dramatic stories that linger and provide countless opportunities to reach viewers, listeners, and readers. Whether it’s recent material like Colin Kaepernick being blackballed by NFL teams or older stories such as Tim Tebow’s quest to play QB in the NFL, Barry Bonds’ rumored steroid use or when will Brett Favre retire. When high profile personalities are in the middle of a media fire storm, we stoke the flames until there’s nothing left to burn.

If you were to identify a media story that fits that description in recent times, it would be the one centered around ESPN and their alleged political bias. I’ve done research on this subject before, and have read numerous pieces from other outlets with differing views, and to be honest, I’ve grown tired of it. It’s a story that is received differently by each individual based on the way they see the world and unless new developments emerge, opinions are unlikely to change.

However, what perplexes me is why the world’s largest sports media company remains fixated on continuing a fight which has no clear path to victory. They’re essentially in the same position that Hillary Clinton was during the late hours of election night. If there’s no way to change the narrative then sometimes its best to move on.

It’s even more troublesome because the company talks out of both sides of its mouth. Disney CEO Bob Iger says there is no left-leaning political agenda at ESPN, yet the company retained Langer Research Associates to conduct a study to determine if they have an issue.

The glass half full crowd in Bristol will tell you that they took that step to alleviate any public concerns. The glass half empty crowd who loathe what the worldwide leader in sports has become will suggest that the network wouldn’t have done the study and contradicted the opinion expressed by their own CEO if there wasn’t something to it.

I was disappointed when the network rolled out their rosy review of the study because they conveniently chose to dismiss that 63% of participants felt ESPN had a liberal bias. When questioned by Michael McCarthy of the Sporting News on why they ignored that part of the survey in their company press release they responded by saying they were trying to keep the press release short.

You and I both know that response is weak and reeks of the company trying to put cologne on a skunk.

The public is going to be cynical when any company researches itself because they assume the results aren’t independently provided. It’s why political folks go bat shit crazy over poll numbers from outlets they don’t like, and why baseball fans initially rejected MLB’s Mitchell Report until it uncovered some damaging results.

Those same reasons are why many media members don’t take ESPN’s ombudsman position seriously. The intent may be to hold the company accountable, but as long as one operates under the same corporate umbrella and receives a paycheck from Mickey Mouse, it’s harder to subscribe to the belief that a writer has free reign to criticize the company.

In analyzing the results from the Langer Associates study, they’re very different from independent surveys conducted by Deep RootYouGov and BSM. That doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong or that the information isn’t valuable. It just means they connected with a different group of people. What you choose to believe or reject is for you to personally decide.

From my vantage point, I could care less about ESPN’s political agenda. I watch games, shows, and documentaries because I love sports and value quality programming. I don’t have the time nor the patience to sit through all of ESPN’s hours of programming and dissect the percentages of right vs. left commentary that pop up during on-air conversations. I still believe that as a whole, the company cares first and foremost about sports programming, and any political on-air influence is going to be rather small when you compare it to the overall delivery of on-air sports content.

But that’s not the entire issue. Here is where I think some people are missing the boat, including the powers that be at ESPN.

Social media is a game changer. This is where connections are made, minds are influenced, and perceptions are formed daily. The network may be right that their programming doesn’t contain a ton of political commentary or one-sided views but the same can’t be said about their personalities on social media. We also can’t ignore the influence of social and political commentary that has appeared on ESPN’s digital brands.

Do yourself a favor. Go take a look at how many ESPN personalities follow CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times compared to FOX News. Examine the number of ESPN talents who follow Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump. Explore the difference between the number of media members following Bill Maher and Anderson Cooper as opposed to Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

But don’t stop there.

Take a look at the opinions and responses provided on social platforms by ESPN personalities when it comes to political issues or feedback from fans addressing sensitive topics. What you’ll discover is that there is a heavier amount of ESPN folks pushing democratic views, opinions, content, and personalities.

Does that mean there aren’t conservative views at ESPN? Of course not. But for every Linda Cohn who acknowledges that political influence is an issue for the company, there are 4-5 countering that position from inside the same building.

In previous years, social media wasn’t an integral part of our lives. Our access to the thoughts, opinions and personal tastes of on-air anchors and commentators were limited, and their public views were directed towards stories that mattered to the sports fan. I’m sure Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick, and Keith Olbermann all had things that bothered them politically, but we weren’t privy to those views.

And let’s not forget, 9/11 happened sixteen years ago, the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, and the government bailed out the banks and the auto industry in 2008. Those were very sensitive subjects for many people, and had social media been available like it is today, the views expressed by members of the sports media may have changed the way we perceive them, let alone watch or listen to them.

I was fortunate to spend two great years working for ESPN and what I appreciated most during my time there was how focused everyone was on delivering creative and compelling sports programming. There was no attention wasted on outside noise or competitors, only on providing the best possible content experience for sports fans. Although my experience in Bristol was limited, it was a positive one. Not once did I question the company’s direction or feel there was an unspoken dictate to make sure certain stories or positions were presented.

But that was over a decade ago and much has changed since then. It’s pained me to write a few scathing things about the company because there are a lot of great talented people there who I like, respect, appreciate and know are concerned first and foremost with presenting a great product. They don’t go to work thinking about political agendas or countering public narratives, but because certain issues are explored by talent in social circles, and the company adamantly denies those views create any rift with the audience, it puts others in the middle and forces them to absorb the brunt of the outrage and criticism.

The bottom line is this. ESPN can conduct all of the research that it wants and issue press releases and public statements countering the charge that it leans left, but they’re not going to convince people to change their minds when evidence is available to counter it. They also have zero control over what other media outlets write and present on TV/radio to support their own points of view about the network’s position.

If the company really wants to address the subject and create noticeable solutions they have a few options.

  • 1. Go all-in on their current position. The country is divided and the network’s top high profile stars have a greater interest in democratic content and people. Instead of pretending you aren’t what others perceive you to be, embrace it. It might actually help the company gain more fans and respect. One may counter that they should do the exact opposite but that would require eliminating a significant amount of people and replacing them with more conservative thinkers and that would be catastrophic to the brand and its bottom line.
  • 2. Take drastic measures to make sure the network’s talent aren’t providing off-brand messaging. Social media has swung the opinions of ESPN’s brand and people because the on-air talent address issues that divide people. It used to be in radio that race, religion and politics were off limits unless absolutely necessary. Even if those rules still applied on ESPN’s airwaves, if their people are on social platforms, political networks and in public spaces interjecting their views on divisive issues it muddies the waters.

Let me be clear about this, I’m strongly against censorship. If ESPN took the bold step of restricting their talent from addressing non-sports issues in public spaces I think they’d endure even heavier backlash. It’d also be hypocritical given that the company has invested in brands such as The Undefeated and fivethirtyeight. But if they wanted to change the conversation and restore the public’s faith in the company caring about sports and only sports, they’d need to send a serious message. This would certainly do so, although I don’t recommend it.

  • 3. The final solution is to simply ignore the noise. Why waste time and energy worrying about things beyond your control? If the company focuses on creating and delivering exceptional content, satisfying the wants and needs of its advertisers, and forging strong relationships with sports leagues, cable companies and digital providers to protect its current position and assure future growth, then that should be enough to keep everyone feeling good. In the end, that really is all that matters, regardless of what others think or write. If one more second is spent addressing the subject, it’s one too many.

If the past is any indication, this story will not go away. ESPN has shown itself to be thin-skinned and when media outlets and competitors smell blood, they look to further rip open the wound. I have no idea why the company seems obsessed with convincing the public this issue isn’t real but clearly it’s a sensitive subject.

If it were my call, I’d task the company’s brain trust to put their passion and enthusiasm into the programming. After all, it’s the main reason why the network matters to sports fans in the first place! When great content becomes the focus of conversation, it’s amazing how the other issues become less important.

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