By the end of last week, Deep Root, a media analytics firm that does work for Republicans, published a study that suggested that politics have affected ESPN’s audience. According to Deep Root, which matched voter files and set-top box data, ESPN’s viewers in Cincinnati were majority Republican in 2015; in 2016, they skewed Democratic.
ESPN has not tried to hide its social agenda, but it couches it as transcending politics. “We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy,” ESPN President John Skipper told ESPN ombudsman Jim Brady in December when he was asked whether the perceived political shift was real or intentional. In the same column, Brady quoted an anonymous conservative employee as saying, “If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers. There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV [in the office].” He concluded that ESPN could stand to offer more diverse viewpoints on the air.
None of this is to say that politics was the direct cause of ESPN’s layoffs. It wasn’t. “You’re looking at a changing business; that’s the driving factor here,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at financial services firm BTIG. Over the past four years, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers. Some of them are people who don’t watch sports on TV and now have the option to purchase skinnier cable bundles, which is especially painful because ESPN gets more than $7 per subscriber, the most of any channel.
But as ESPN responds to a new era of millennial media habits to shore up its bottom line, it must also wrestle with the relative appetite of its viewers for political debate in a space that often has been considered—mistakenly—as a refuge from the contentious questions that dominate the political realm.