All told, the ESPN audience across the network’s channels was already liberal in 2015 – but it became more liberal in 2016 as Republicans stopped watching:
- The ESPN audience became 5% less Republican in 2016 than 2015 across all 43 markets analyzed.
- ESPN2’s audience became 10% less Republican during the same time period.
- The biggest partisan shift happened on ESPN News, whose audience became 36% less Republican and more Democratic.
- ESPNU’s audience became 12% more Democratic in 2016 compared to 2015.
- ESPN Deportes – whose audience already skewed very liberal – became 27% more Democratic.
- In all, 34 of the markets included in our analysis showed the audience of the flagship ESPN network become less Republican in 2016 compared to 2015; the ESPN audience became more Republican in only 9 of the analyzed markets.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. I have poo-pooed the notion that politics is surrounding ESPN’s troubles, but this indicates that it may at least be a factor. It makes sense for the shows suffering the most to be on ESPNews because that’s where commentary is most likely to come into play. It’s also where you would expect to see the losses anyway because the entire network has become superfluous in the Internet Age. At this point it probably ought to be rebranded. However, that they are bleeding more among Republicans seems significant?
It’s also interesting because Clay Travis and other rightward ESPN critics have claimed that ESPN is shooting itself in the foot because sports fans tend to be conservative. ESPN’s viewers, though, already tended liberal. So arguably they were actually playing to their base. Of course, that can backfire (ask the comic book industry) and perhaps it has.
Which touches on something tangential I have been meaning to mention Over There and elsewhere. The show with the highest ratings is not necessarily the show that a cable network or publication wants to run with. One of the complaints about Bret Stephens being hired by the New York Times was that their liberal columnists are more popular and therefore the Times is doing something wrong in a business sense by bringing in someone readers hate. Maybe, but… that’s not the only metric. If Stephens brings in and/or retains readers, it doesn’t matter if he’s less popular than people like Blow who are well-regarded by the people who will buy the paper anyway because of the six other columnists situated in a similar place along the ideological spectrum. On the other hand, of course, if Stephens costs the Times more readers through a boycott than it gains through new subscriptions and retention, then their point stands. For what it’s worth, I do think the hiring was a mistake, but for different reasons than liberals do and that the liberals do actually come out of it looking pretty bad.
Back to ESPN, if the network’s leftward lurch is hurting it with its more marginal viewers that is a bad thing indeed for ESPN. If they hired Rush Limbaugh to do commentary again and that kept conservative viewers around, that would be business-good.
It remains less clear to me what ESPN is doing wrong, though. There has been a lot written about how “sports media” has gone left, but that seems more due to the proliferation of leftward sports media sites rather than flagships. It seems possible that the primary complaint is simply that ESPN is not being conservative – by not coming down hard on Colin Kaepernick for example – than what they’re actually doing. If conservatives are watching less sports due to Kaepernick, I think that says more about them than ESPN. I am somewhat attuned to media slights of the right, and I just don’t see very much of it on ESPN (where I would be less inclined to shrug it off than from Gawker media).
That means either I’m missing it because it’s things like Michael Sam where I am simply on the same page as the media, or it’s happening as I am seeing it and conservatives are being snowflakes, or my initial instincts were right and it has little or nothing to do with politics.
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