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By Will Racke
When ESPN fired over 100 employees Wednesday, it confirmed what many media observers have known for a long time: the sports giant’s business model is collapsing in slow motion.
As cable subscribers defect to internet streaming services–ESPN has lost about 10 million subscribers in the last three years — the network is less able to afford the billions in fees it must pay to broadcast live sports.
A new analysis of ESPN’s viewership data shows there might also be a political component to its financial woes.
Deep Root Analytics, an Arlington Virginia-based firm that specializes in TV viewership metrics, looked at data from the Cincinnati media market for all of 2015 and 2016 to see if there was a change in the political orientation of ESPN’s viewers. The analysis showed a clear trend –ESPN’s viewership in the swing state market was less Republican in 2016 than it was the year before.
“To be sure, the ESPN layoffs signal a larger business challenge facing the network,” the report said. “But at least in Cincinnati, the partisanship of viewers noticeably shifted — just as ESPN’s problems got worse.”
In 2015, the ESPN audience skewed Republican across all time segments, known as dayparts, ranging from 12 percent more Republican in the Early News, Late Fringe and Overnight dayparts, to 21 percent more Republican than Democratic in the early morning time segment.
The balance shifted dramatically in 2016, with the viewership in every daypart becoming less conservative. The Daytime segment was only 2 percent more Republican than Democratic, a drop of 16 percentage points from 2015. Late Fringe and Overnight viewership swung to a 12 percent advantage for Democrats, 22 and 28 point shift, respectively.
Clay Travis, the founder of Fox Sports’ Outkick The Coverage blog, has reported for years on the relationship between ESPN’s left-wing programming bent and the flight of conservative viewers to other networks or internet streaming services. Its subscriber losses are rooted in the increasingly unfavorable economics of bundled cable programming, he says, but the network isn’t helping itself by favoring liberal political causes.
“Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football,” Travis wrote in a blog post Wednesday. “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady laid the blame for declining viewership on cable unbundling, but conceded Wednesday that politics is one of a set of “smaller causes.”
@BonkPolitics Cable unbundling is the main cause and there's then a set of smaller causes, politics being one. You may disagree and that's fine.
— ESPN Public Editor (@ESPNPublicEd) April 26, 2017
As the Deep Root analysis shows, ESPN’s politics may be a bigger part of the problem than it is willing to admit.