President Donald Trump’s Twitter attack on ESPN on Friday morning hit the sports network in a particularly sensitive area — its declining subscriber numbers, which Trump claimed was because of its too-liberal politics.
Over the past several years, ESPN has faced a steady decline in subscribers, dropping from more than 100 million in 2011 to around 87 million today. The company has also undergone very public job reductions, cutting dozens of well-known faces in April. But does politics have anything to do with it?
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According to analysts, no. But getting dragged into a political fight does present a challenge for the network.
“It’s a red herring. The drop in subscribers is an economic issue, not a political one,” said Joseph Bonner, a senior analyst for Communications and Technology at Argus Media. Bonner actually laughed at the notion that political bias has played a role, pointing out that ESPN has been steadily losing subscribers since well before the narrative developed —fairly or not — that the network is too liberal.
Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner of the consulting agency cg42, which has extensively studied cord-cutting in the cable industry, agrees. “If you go way, way, way down the list, you might have a segment of the population that is changing behavior based on their political stances,” Beck said. “But I would be shocked if that was a significant contributor to ESPN’s decline. It has a lot more to do with macro trends.”
That doesn’t mean that the current controversy isn’t a problem, Beck said. As the narrative around ESPN builds, spurred on by the president, Beck said that it could cause people who weren’t considering cord cutting to rethink whether ESPN — so long a de facto part of their television lives — is really something they want to be paying for.
“This has the potential to make things worse because it shines a bright light on the challenges that the company is having overall and may make some more likely to pay attention to what they’re paying for,” Beck said. “The president of the United States tweeting negative things about your brand in an environment where you’re already at risk and you’re already on a downward trend, it’s just not what you want to see happening.”
Mike Ananny, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, also agreed that politics is unrelated to ESPN’s drop in subscribers. Unlike Beck, though, he didn’t think the current imbroglio presents a threat.
“It’s like the days when people sometimes used to say, ‘I’m upset, I’m canceling my newspaper subscription,’” he said. “There’s always going to be a small number of people who will do that, but I have a really hard time believing that many people are going to cancel ESPN because of this one statement.”
Nonetheless, a feud with Trump isn’t something ESPN wanted, especially as conservative commentators — including some at rival Fox Sports 1 — have increasingly accused the network of having a liberal bias. The criticisms first gained prominence in 2015, when the network awarded Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs, raising conservative hackles. Then, last year, ESPN cut ties with politically outspoken analyst Curt Schilling, following statements he made about transgender issues on Facebook that the company said violated its standards. Conservatives have also complained about the network’s coverage of social issues, including quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem.
In June, when ESPN brought back Hank Williams Jr. to sing its “Monday Night Football” theme, many saw it as a way to push back against the “liberal ESPN” narrative. Six years earlier, the network had fired Williams after he said during a “Fox & Friends” appearance that then-House Speaker John Boehner playing golf with President Barack Obama would be like “Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.”
Now, Trump’s determination to plant a spotlight on Jemele Hill, who hosts the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter,” called “The Six,” has certainly overwhelmed any breathing room ESPN might have hoped to gain from Williams making his return to “Monday Night Football” this week.
“This is absolutely not the way that ESPN wants to be in the press,” Beck said of the feud with Trump.
Since the beginning of the controversy around Hill’s tweets, ESPN has appeared to proceed carefully, if not awkwardly.
On Monday, it all began when Hill tweeted that Trump was “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime” and called him a “white supremacist.” The following day, ESPN put out a statement that drew fire from both ends of the political spectrum. The network said Hill’s comments “do not represent the position of ESPN,” and “We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”
The National Association of Black Journalists responded with a statement in support of Hill, while hashtags backing her started sprouting up on Twitter. Meanwhile, from the right, ESPN faced condemnation for not punishing Hill.
On Wednesday, after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called her tweets a fireable offense, Hill made her regular appearance on “The Six.” Later that night, she tweeted: “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional.”
ESPN also put out another statement, saying, “Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology.”
That statement failed to satisfy Trump, who tweeted on Friday morning, “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!”
The attempt to turn a media outlet into a target, and then claim its coverage is the reason for its supposed business failings, is typical of Trump. He’s repeatedly done the same with The New York Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO, and many other outlets — even if the charges don’t have much basis in truth.
ESPN does face a worrisome decline in subscriptions, but it’s not for the reason Trump says. Rather, other media trends like the debundling of cable packages and emergence of digital streaming services have cut into the network’s profit margins.
“These trends have started, you could trace their roots back roughly a decade at this point,” Ian Olgeirson, a media analyst at the research firm Kagan, said of ESPN’s subscription declines.
Nevertheless, the Hill controversy came up again in Friday’s White House news briefing, with Huckabee Sanders repeating her assertion that the “SportsCenter” anchor’s comments were fireable, spurring yet another news cycle. That raised the question of whether the network would indeed take further action against Hill, shoot back against Trump, or just lie low.
For most of the day, ESPN chose to lie low.
Late in the afternoon, CEO John Skipper sent a long note to employees that gently alluded to the controversy without mentioning Hill or Trump. The note was aimed more at reassuring employees than at addressing the president’s criticisms.
“ESPN is not a political organization,” he wrote in the note. “Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.”
At the same time, he spoke of the network’s values, including that “no one be denigrated for who they are, including their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity.”
After reiterating the network’s policy of avoiding social media posts that are too “inflammatory,” he wrote: “In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”