Former ESPN President John Skipper’s legacy includes the creation of Grantland, the acquisition of FiveThirtyEight, and the Emmy Award-winning 30 for 30. While ESPN is currently in a transition of leadership, Skipper’s legacy is not without its share of blunders nearly two months after his shocking resignation.
But one blunder could be beneficial in going forward.
It is the one glaring every evening at 6 pm, with his decision to reinvent the network’s former flagship program SportsCenter. What ESPN – under Skipper’s supremacy – had envisioned when turning the timeslot over to Jemele Hilland Michael Smith appears to be the polar opposite of what SC6 became in its concluding months.
“There was a time we weren’t even talking to each other [on air] anymore. Like no more Michael and Jemele, not less, not here and there. No more Michael and Jemele talking. No more of their commentary. It’s just strictly live shots and analysts. That’s what pissed me off so much. I was like, wait a second, you all acknowledge that one of the strengths we have going for us as a show is Michael and Jemele’s chemistry, but Michael and Jemele don’t fucking talk to each other? How does that make sense?”
Pretty strong words from Smith–who is now hosting the show solo.
Former ESPNer Bill Simmons pointed out on his podcast the trend ESPN is heading in is distinguishably different from what occurred during the majority of the Skipper era.
Simmons believes that nostalgia works when it comes to sports fans and ESPN had gone away from that. He believed this was proven by their decision to demote the first face on ESPN’s Mount Rushmore Chris Berman and replace him with Sam Ponder. The ratings during the 2017 regular season were down 12% from Boomer’s final year on NFL Countdown.
“ESPN is in an interesting point right now,” Simmons said the recent moves including the A-Rod signing told him that “ratings are now a priority again.” Simmons, it should be noted, was given initial freedom with Grantland where he was not expected to generate revenue, and Grantland was never a page view success but was praised on social media.
“It is weird to say ratings weren’t a priority before, but I’m not 100% sure they were. I think it was more the public perceptions of we are trying all kind of things, we are super committed to diversity, it is super important we have a female announcer on Monday Night Football, we are trying to 6 pm SportsCenter with two young black hosts.”
If Simmons is correct and this is now ESPN’s new philosophy it could really shake things up once again. If they are truly only committed to ratings that could mean danger for many of their platforms that Skipper once backed.
What type of ramifications could this have on OTL, a program that daily ranks as one of ESPN lowest watched shows between 7 am – 7 pm (the day after the Super Bowl it was the tied for the third lowest with 526k)?
Skipper was a believer in journalism; it has already been reported they are willing to sell FiveThirtyEight, this could portend danger for both The Undefeated and ESPN The Magazine.
What do the two websites and OTL have in common? Outsized social media praise – whatever that’s worth – relative to ratings success. Then there’s First Take, a show scoring increasing ratings in an era when ratings are tanking … which is met with disdain on the groupthink battleground of social media.
Now, for as much criticism as ESPN has received, many of their ideas produced good content, but it wasn’t what sports fans wanted.
It will be interesting to see how long of a leash ESPN gives the two impending shows that were commissioned before Skipper’s resignation: Get Up (Mike Greenberg, Jalen Rose, Michelle Beadle) and the unnamed Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre show.
Get Up will need to draw significantly more viewers from the current SportsCenter led by Sage Steele to see the financial growth ESPN is hoping for. The new show is paying Greenberg alone a reported $6.5 million per year, and they built an expensive studio in New York specifically for the show.
Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,'” and ESPN’s history has shown their audience likes chemistry + sports. Think of their biggest successes outside of live events: Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless.
What viewers want, more than anything, is to be entertained. That can involve a mix of non-sports topics, pop culture, and strong opinions, but if it is not entertaining, they will turn away.
Again, this really could all be a silver lining moment for ESPN if they take what worked and reinvent it. ESPN ended up making a bad decision by creating SC6 and replacing Boomer. Does that mean they should go back to highlights and try to recreate 1998? No. But trying to listen to the audience and what it says–by what it views–is a start.