ESPN Has an Identity Crisis: What Do They Want to Be?

As you’re surely aware by now, ESPN canceled Barstool Van Talk after eight months of working to get it on the air, during which the network leadership evidently never learned about the content of the broader brand with which it was partnering. ESPN President John Skipper nearly said so himself:

How they thought they could distance their “efforts” from Barstool when Barstool was in the name of the show is anyone’s guess; nevertheless, while it’s unknowable, I’ve maintained that the same issues of internal unease with the relationship would’ve surfaced. The reaction was pretty predictable for anyone who’s been paying attention to digital media the past several years — Big Cat and PFT Commenter are palatable for the masses, while Barstool founder Dave Portnoy is by his own admission more of a pirate — and it’s remarkable that once they announced they were doing the show, ESPN couldn’t reconcile the positive and negative feedback. But, for the past several years, the network has struggled to forge a cohesive identity.

ESPN’s mission, printed in Bristol and on corporate business cards, is “To serve sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.” In the past several years, as the nation has become more politically divisive and these polarities permeate into sports, ESPN’s desire to be Everything to Everybody has resulted in Nobody being happy.

Cord cutting and live rights fees skyrocketing formed a vicious tag-team against ESPN’s long-term business model. Beginning in 2015, ESPN laid off hundreds of old guard employees both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Younger, more diverse voices with regard to sex, race, and ethnicity were promoted.

While the network’s football studio programming still, to my eyes, skewed conservative and the game presentations themselves were apolitical, ESPN got harangued by the right-wing for going more left with various daytime studio offerings. They responded by publicizing a survey that said politics hadn’t hurt their business, and by bringing Hank Williams Jr. (who they fired for analogizing President Obama to Hitler) back into the Monday Night Football fold.

When Jemele Hill was under fire for calling President Trump a white supremacist, ESPN tried to thread a needle but ended up stabbing themselves with it. A public censure but no discipline enraged both sides of the aisle, and then when they made a make-up call shortly thereafter — suspending her for saying a boycott could be effective protest against Jerry Jones for quashing anthem kneeling — their ombudsman couldn’t figure out how this ostensible sports commentary violated their written social media policy. Further, it came out that the network promoted Wendi Nix saying something very similar on their airwaves in 2015. They’re making all this stuff up as they go.

Some content decisions have been haphazard. Michael Smith and Jemele Hill and the people behind the scenes at SC6 struggled to merge SportsCenter‘s news and highlights legacy with the His & Hers talk show format that got the talents to that spot, and the result was a muddled program that’s still a work in progress. (Credit where it’s due, though: ESPN did get the personality-driven SportsCenter right with Scott Van Pelt.)

Mike Greenberg was supposed to lead a new morning program on his own, but there was critical backlash to that idea and it soon became a Greeny & Friends concept where they badly needed Michelle Beadle to salvage it. The show is delayed for months, is going to cost an unreal amount of money in talent costs, New York studio space and union production costs, and still seems from the outside to be highly unlikely to light the world on fire with must-see conversation.

And this brings us to Barstool. What did ESPN expect to happen, and what’s changed since last Tuesday when the show aired a day after Sam Ponder’s metaphorical middle finger at company management for sanctioning the program? When Ponder, Sarah Spain, and presumably other talents’ concerns were considered but ultimately overridden — and, it bears repeating, that Big Cat and PFT Commenter do have many supporters inside ESPN — before the show was formally announced, shouldn’t this have indicated that company leadership was on the same page? Burke Magnus, the executive who oversaw the show, and, along with Connor Schell and Justin Connolly, one of Skipper’s three top lieutenants, was documenting its 18-34 male viewership on Twitter last week. How must he be feeling today?

If ESPN is going to be sensitive and reactive against criticism, their leadership should at least have the foresight to see it coming. The only people this could have been a surprise to are apparently running the company.

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