This has been the summer of racial conflicts, the summer of terrorism, and the summer of mass shootings. It has been the summer of Donald Trump. Politics has become more contentious. It’s what people are thinking about. It’s what people are talking about. It’s what people are being less civil about.
If politics was a sport, it would be besting all but the NFL. The 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions eclipsed average viewership for the World Series, the NBA Finals, and the College Football Playoff. Those were the appetizers for Trump vs. Clinton in September.
This does not appear to be a great development for sports. Fewer people are watching sports this summer. NBC Olympics viewership has lagged behind numbers for 2012. The MLB All-Star Game drew its worst audience ever. English language viewership for the Copa America and Euro 2016 finals combined was just 43 percent of the audience for the 2014 World Cup Final. That is assuming zero crossover viewership. The actual percentage is much lower.
Fewer people are watching people talk about sports. Ratings for PTI and Around the Horn have taken a significant decline year over year. I compiled data (via Sports TV Ratings) year over year for the first week of August and the final three weeks of July. It’s a slow period. Hosts take vacations. But, those same factors were in play last year too. For fairness, I excluded episodes shown on ESPN2.
PTI dipped from 867,000 average viewers in 2015 to 682,700 over the same span in 2016, a 21 percent decline. Around the Horn dropped similarly from 562,000 average viewers to 460,100, an 18 percent decline. Highly Questionable took a 10 percent hit from 453,000 to 408,500.
Cord-cutting? Staleness after 15 years? Broader changes in a now digital industry? Relevant to be sure. But, those factors were equally relevant in 2015.
Politics may be distracting viewers away from sports. But, it’s also shaping how people view sports. The sports world is not a timeless, hermetic universe. It’s subject to societal trends.
Sports discussion seems to be moving in concert with the rest of life, becoming deeper, more nuanced, and more political. We’re as apt to be talking about LeBron’s social activism as we are to compare his basketball-playing acumen to Steph Curry. One of the lead stories of the Olympics: NBC’s gendered programming strategy. Major topics such as “the war on football” and “amateurism in college athletics” have strong political undertones.
Look at how much ESPN has changed. In 2008, the WWL nixed a Bill Simmons podcast with Barack Obama saying “fans don’t expect political coverage on our air.” In 2016, ESPN simulcasted a Barack Obama town hall on gun violence with His & Hers host Jemele Hill participating.
ESPN dropped comparatively airy and apolitical Grantland for the Undefeated, which seeks to advance the discussion on racial issues. ESPN’s other semi-autonomous project is FiveThirtyEight, a primarily political site.
The ESPYs served as a forum for major political cultural stands on LGBT issues in 2015 and gun violence in 2016. 30 for 30 documentaries have progressed from “hey, wasn’t that hockey trade neat?” to a potentially Oscar-worthy portrayal of Los Angeles racial politics through the prism of the O.J. Simpson trial.
FOX Sports has pivoted as well. It has eschewed the “jocularity” it launched with three years ago for a deeper and more political edge. The network poached Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd, and Jason Whitlock from ESPN. The FOX News comparison is strong. But, FOX Sports 1 is becoming a conscious counterpoint to the perceived political correctness of its larger competitor. We’ll see what happens when Skip removes the handcuffs.
A fundamental question is who is driving this political shift. Are politicized viewers craving more politicized content? Must it be that way to stay relevant and in step with the rest of the world? If that’s the case, sports programming may be in trouble.
Shows such as PTI and Around the Horn are predicated on the games themselves mattering. The format, even if the hosts are smart, capable, and have Bomani Jones’ cogent, rapid-fire diction, isn’t conducive to discussing the “Great Game” of American politics and culture. Discussing whether Tony Romo is clutch, in that world, feels like an anachronism. It’s hard to dive into nuanced racial issues with a countdown clock and a scoring system.
Or, perhaps, politicized viewers may be reacting to what they perceive as more politicized content. White males, uncomfortable with America’s changing demographics and social norms, form Donald Trump’s base. They are also disproportionately represented in the sports audience.
Social stands may play well on media Twitter. That doesn’t mean they play well with a substantial segment of the audience. If ESPN, fairly or not, is portrayed as a liberal bastion, conservatives may be less apt to go there for the ancillary programming, even if it’s not very political.
It could also be both, with factors snowballing on social media too quickly to keep track of them.
“Stick to sports” and sell American beer has been one of television’s best formulas. That formula has spawned cottage industries extending that sports discussion. But, “sticking to sports” may be impossible when what sports means is evolving.