One would think that talking about sports for a living might be one of the easiest professions because they are literally professional talking heads about a purist entertainment form of escapism.
One would think it wouldn’t be difficult, and yet, the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN, somehow convoluted what got them to that position in the first place when they injected politics as much as they could like heroin addicts looking for their next fix.
Now, ESPN is finally realizing this one hard political truth about their recent past.
ESPN has come a long way since the old days when hosts like Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, Bob Ley, John Anderson and Scott Van Pelt focused exclusively on sports highlights and dazzled up those clips with funny buzz words. Those were the days.
Now the whole network is nothing but shows of talking heads who say outrageous things because those hyperbolic sound bites are what put their names on the map. This includes their favorite subject nowadays which is to infuse President Trump into the discussion as much and as often as possible.
But they are finally learning that this wasn’t the right strategy in the first place and one network executive noticed the resurgence in growth once they redirected back to sports.
Disney CEO Bob Iger recently appointed ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN network executive Norby Williamson with that task.
One of their first missions was to redo ESPN’s The Six which was their flagship SportsCenter substitute hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.
Ratings were already sinking fast but then Hill decided to call President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter and not only was she suspended but she left the show a few months later. And only weeks later after that, the show was canceled and reverted back to the old Sports Center.
Hill floated around to the other shows like Sports Nation, Around the Horn and Highly Questionable to presumably fill her contractual obligations but they came to a buyout agreement and now she works for the The Atlantic.
As for Michael Smith, he hosted the show by himself and was notably furious about the way ESPN “treated” Hill and now he’s largely disappeared from the ESPN realm altogether.
When those two anti-Trump personalities left, the ratings skyrocketed.
Williamson told the Washington Post, “I think we miscalculated a little bit. The perception became that you could just roll a talent out there and it doesn’t matter what he or she is saying — that the content didn’t matter. I just never believed that.”
Nevertheless, that’s still a majority of the network.
ESPN’s 7am – 6pm Monday though Friday scheduling is mostly sports personalities giving their “hot takes” on the previous night or weekend’s sporting events.
But at least ESPN executives and some analysts have become self-aware that the narrative needs to change. When Hill was suspended there was a company-wide email blasted to all employees not to discuss politics at or outside of work.
Anchor Sage Steele wisely said recently, “I think we’ve recommitted to what people expect from us. Just as I would have watched the ‘CBS Evening News’ show with Dan Rather, I want my information. This is the same thing – just sports.”
For the record, Steele replaced Hill and Smith’s spot on Sports Center so it’s no surprise that her acumen about not discussing politics is at least partially why the ratings drastically improved.
It really doesn’t get more off-brand than that.