Australian Notes

Australian notes

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

The ABC of ESPN

I confess to being something of a sports addict. I like playing and watching competitive sports, not least because this is as close as life gets to merit prevailing. Yes, there is luck. But over time the smarter, better, more mentally tough team or individual beats the opponent. But not always – hence the pleasure in watching. Underdogs sometimes win, just not very often. So sports are diverting, they’re entertaining. A former US Supreme Court judge (not one of my favourites by any means) said he always started reading his newspaper with the sports page. ‘That’s where they record achievements. The front page is where they record failures.’

The general point here is that most people do not watch sports as an ersatz exercise in politics. They watch and play to leave behind political and other matters for a while. It’s a place where all points on the political spectrum can come together and enjoy the game. At least that is what sports generally should be.

And that brings me to the US specialist sports network ESPN (owned by Disney). At one point this was the massively dominant sports network in the US, and even overseas – as those readers, like me, who have the full Fox sports package here in Australia will know. It still commands plenty of viewers. But in the last decade or so it has run into big problems. To the point that ESPN in the US recently announced the lay-offs of over a hundred on air and other sports journalists.

Why? There are two reasons, and they are related. The first has to do with how cable TV in the US is delivered to customers. When it faced basically no competition it liked to bundle its services, to force viewers to buy a whole package of TV stations whether they wanted all of them or not. To receive station X you had to take Y and Z too. But that model has collapsed in the last decade or so, in part probably due to the competition from satellite TV. So what is known as ‘unbundling’ has occurred in cable TV.

As a customer you can buy the stations you want, and only the ones you want. And you can get rid of the ones that annoy you. You no longer have to pay for those stations.

Remember that first factor and then note this second one.


ESPN used to be pretty much a straight up sports network. You could watch Pardon the Interruption (PTI) or Around the Horn or anything else and they’d talk sports. But some decade or more ago ESPN began to inject a fair bit of politics – and I mean left-wing, bog standard Democrat-leaning guff – into their presentation of sports. So they’d talk about who can use bathrooms (and all of them would give the Democrat answer); they’d talk about NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick not standing for the US national anthem (and they’d all say this was brave etc.); and if a sports commentator voiced socially conservative views, such as former baseball great Curt Schilling did about who can use which toilets, well, they’d fire him. Scope to speak about politics from their commentators did not extend to those on the right of the spectrum.

And this claim that ESPN today leans left is well documented. Polls show this consistently. A recent one found that 60 per cent of subscribers to ESPN felt it leaned left politically, while 3 (yes, three!) per cent felt it leaned right. Over the last five or six years I have certainly noticed a big change in those two flagship shows of PTI and Around the Horn, to the extent I don’t really watch them anymore. They are just too annoyingly ‘lefty’ and preachy, and they never used to be.

But here’s the thing. ESPN ratings are dropping like a stone these past few years. Yes, yes, yes there are no doubt multiple causes for this, including new technology.

But last year alone ESPN’s ratings dropped 16 per cent. That was the immediate cause of the above mentioned lay-offs. But far more Republicans are cancelling their subscriptions than Democrats. A recent detailed analysis in Cincinnati, in the swing state of Ohio, found a 25 point difference (which is huge) between Republicans and Democrats in who was cancelling ESPN. This study controlled for all other factors. People just don’t want politics they don’t agree with rammed down their throats when they turn on sports.

It gets worse than that for ESPN because more Republicans tend to buy sports channels than Democrats. So the network is actually attacking its base as it were (not wholly unlike today’s Liberal Party in Australia when you think about it). And the result of this is that it is bleeding customers. I only keep my ESPN because it is the only option in Australia if you want to watch live NFL and US college basketball (Lord knows I don’t care about the soccer or Tour de France).

But notice the lesson here.

Where viewers have a choice and can vote with their feet or wallets, then companies that want to become PR agencies for Hillary Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s worldview will pay a cost. It might be a very significant cost, as ESPN is learning – and likewise as some very talented on-air sports commentators and behind the camera producers are learning in a very brutal way, as they no longer have a job.

Compare this to ‘our’ ABC network here in Australia, which is now in my view such a left-leaning, unbalanced disgrace that any self-respecting Liberal Party would do something about it – as opposed to Team Turnbull which just appoints fellow travellers to ‘see no bias, hear no bias’ to run the behemoth broadcaster.

Rather than splash over a billion dollars a year of taxpayers’ money to the ABC each year to spend as they like, give individual Australians the choice of whether they wish to pay for the ABC’s output.

Many would. I suspect you’d find many wouldn’t. If the ABC wished to continue with its entrenched policy of not employing a single, solitary right-of-centre presenter or producer on any of its TV current affairs shows we could give it ‘the ESPN treatment’.

Come on Liberals. Let the market speak. Give us choice. Let those of us who can no longer bear watching the ABC not have to pay for it.

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