Donald Trump’s precise effect on sports has been difficult to parse. But, it’s safe to presume politics dragged significantly on sports’ popularity during the election season. Live debates drew stratospheric ratings. Cable news networks siphoned off viewers. Leagues such as the NFL felt it. So did sports debate programs.
Most presumed this politics fad would go away after the election. Things would calm down. But, a couple weeks into the Trump presidency, controversies are raging. Protesters are taking to the streets by the millions. There’s even more contentious health care fight looming. A non-self-inflicted crisis is inevitable. Politics is not going away and it’s making it hard to cover sports.
Sports media members critical of Trump have had a tough time not speaking out, especially with much of the controversy being media-centric. There has already been one casualty. Sports media members supportive of Trump feel silenced by the potential backlash. Political predilections aside, there’s a sense the thing you’re trying to make sound important just isn’t, in comparison. Is anyone having strong thoughts about the New York Jets right now? The question for everyone in sports media is how we move forward.
The last analogous period for American politics is probably the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Vietnam War. Watergate. Assassinations. Nixon. Multiple Civil Rights movements. There was a lot going on. Much of it dispirited. That ended up being a golden time for sports on television because it offered an escape. It’s when the NFL cemented itself as a fixture in American life. That won’t happen again.
There’s no longer a Chinese wall between sports and politics (if there ever was one). Sports media coverage is fine-tuned to “engage” the audience. Pure sports discussions in the analytics era can be technical and impenetrable. Much of the discussion revolves around trolling with hypotheticals. What engages people right now is politics. It’s no surprise the most enduring “sports” stories – such as Colin Kaepernick’s protest – are where sports and politics intersect. “Stick to sports” has no real meaning.
One could argue politics has become more sports than sports. There’s fierce partisanship. Social media obsesses over the daily soap opera. Desks full of former players do pregame and postgame for live press conferences. We’ve seen a proliferation of excellent podcasts. Politics has been entertaining and unpredictable. There’s still room for heroes, heels, and other personalities in a way that sports has ironed out. The results have real life impact, beyond gambling losses. Generally, people don’t try to escape things that are more entertaining and meaningful.
What will happen is unclear. Politics won’t destroy sports interest. But, it may be prudent to view it as a sustained downward pressure. Sports trends that looked like they were heading for the tipping point – declining cable subscribers, declining attendance, oversaturation, declining youth interest – may tip. Ditto for media ones. The national audience should further fragment. Local audiences may become more fickle, especially if there’s economic uncertainty. It will be an “exciting” time to be in the industry.