You’ve heard it. You’ve read it. You may have even thought it or written it in a comments section, perhaps even here. ESPN should stick to sports. ESPN had to make all those layoffs because of politics. That’ll teach ’em.
Linda Cohn, who has anchored more of the network’s “SportsCenter” editions over nearly 25 years than anyone else, has heard that, too, and she spoke about it Friday, just days after massive layoffs roiled the company that proclaims itself “the worldwide leader.” The network is losing viewers at an alarming clip and, coupled with big rights fees, something had to give as the company structures itself for the future. “Something” was as many as 100 people, many of whom were familiar faces to viewers.
“They definitely overpaid for many of these products, whether it’s the NBA or starting up networks like the Pac-12 Network and SEC Network,” she said “It’s well documented … They [also] did not see that they would lose all these subscribers [to competitors like Netflix.]”
But it was more than just that. Politics played a part, as did the network’s move away from strictly covering sports.
Which brings us to politics. Whether ESPN got there first or was merely led by athletes, who are increasingly becoming vocal about politics and social justice, doesn’t really matter in the face of criticism that has become a nearly constant presence. ESPN was ripped almost two years ago for giving Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award over Lauren Hill, the Mount St. Joseph basketball player who had brain cancer. The criticism continued over its coverage of Colin Kaepernick last year and his protest of the national anthem. The network roamed farther and farther away from coverage, running near-constant debates with “hot takes” that can alienate viewers. Fandom can be polarizing enough without politics creeping into things.
“I felt that the old school viewers were put in a corner and not appreciated with all these other changes,” Cohn said. “And they forgot their core. You can never forget your core and be grateful for your core group.”
Measuring the alienation of those viewers cannot be as easily quantified as cord-cutting or the red ink of rights fees, but Cohn, when asked if she feels there was a “distaste” among viewers for the programming decisions, said she feels it that is “definitely a percentage of it.”
“I don’t know how big a percentage,” she said, “but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind. And that’s what I meant about the core group of what made ESPN so successful.”