ESPN, which brands itself as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” saw its television ratings crater amid the cancellations of live sporting events due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Combined with ongoing social unrest over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans, the network’s shift to social justice topics most likely contributed to the network’s ratings collapse.
Much of ESPN’s recent television programming has featured social justice coverage and the opinions of former players about police brutality, an athlete’s right to express political and social justice beliefs, and how the ongoing social unrest could hamper the return of live sporting events. The network’s shift to social justice coverage directly contradicted the network’s 2019 directive to avoid politics entirely.
ESPN has received significant public backlash in recent years after several of its media personalities expressed political opinions on Twitter or on-air. The negative publicity spurred ESPN to remind employees to remain apolitical. Leaked polling data from ESPN noted that 74% of fans preferred “zero politics” on ESPN platforms.
Clay Travis, who works at ESPN competitor Fox Sports, pointed out that ESPN ratings have hit a historic 41-year ratings low during the pandemic. Travis compared several ESPN studio shows with programs on other networks and discovered that most of ESPN’s shows rated lower than VH1, Cartoon Network, or National Geographic shows in the same time slot. For example, Travis noted that ESPN’s First Take was the 93rd-highest-rated program on cable but was outpaced by VH1’s show Nick Cannon Wild and Out 15 and National Geographic’s Smuggler: Secret Stash.
Fox Sports fared better than ESPN’s programming in some aspects. One example was Fox Sports’ Race Hub, which covers NASCAR, which had more total viewers than ESPN’s First Take.
Though Travis’s goal was to applaud his employer’s ratings while tearing down its primary competitor, Travis’ breakdown highlighted ESPN’s reversal from being apolitical to engaging in social justice conversations.