ESPN Study: Political Polarization Not Affecting Viewer Behavior

KimKyung-Hoon POOL/GETTY IMAGES; Istock; ESPN

ESPN's research department concluded that the media narrative of bias is not affecting the network's standing among sports fans.

The layoff of 100 employees at ESPN in April once again ginned up the narrative that the worldwide sports leader is losing viewers — and subscribers — because of a perceived liberal bias. So ESPN’s research department conducted a news study (May 3-7 by Langer Research Associates) examining the issue.

Among the findings: two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said “ESPN is getting it right in terms of mixing sports news and political issues,” while 10 percent had no opinion and 8 percent said ESPN "does not do enough politics in its programming"; of those who perceived a bias, 30 percent believe ESPN is expressing “a conservative viewpoint.”

The network noted that the proportion of viewers who detected bias was unchanged since its last survey in October 2016, right before the presidential election. At that time 28 percent of viewers believed the network was politically biased. Of that 28 percent, 56 percent said that network showed a liberal bias, while 37 percent said it leaned conservative.

There has been a drumbeat of media stories about the issue for the past several months. Among the catalysts, ESPN's decision to give Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Award at the 2015 ESPYS; the network’s decision to move a golf tournament from a Trump golf course a week earlier in July 2015; and the firing in April 2016 of Curt Schilling for wading into the debate around North Carolina's since overturned "bathroom bill."

In a column last December, ESPN public editor Jim Brady conceded that ESPN has taken “a more identifiable political stance.” Brady noted that “for most of its history, ESPN was viewed relatively apolitically” and “its core focus was — and remains today, of course — sports.”

Sports and politics are intermittently intertwined and the political polarization gripping the country is likely coloring perceptions of ESPN, too. Brady noted that the rise of social media — where ESPN personalities inevitably share their political views — and the popularity of debate shows, “which encourage strong opinions that are increasingly focusing on the overlap between sports and politics,” also are contributing factors. 

In a May 7 column for The Wall Street Journal, ESPN staffer-turned-agitator Jason Whitlock drilled down on ESPN’s position in the culture wars. He asserted that Gawker-owned Deadspin’s coverage of alleged sexual misconduct by ESPN employees precipitated shift in culture at the sports leader to one of “strict obedience to progressive political correctness.” Whitlock did two stints at ESPN; he left the second time in 2015, after a rocky stint at then-nascent vertical The Undefeated. He now works at Fox Sports, where another ESPN alum, Jamie Horowitz, is in charge of programing at cable nets FS1 and FS2.

“The channel has become too handcuffed by politics to protect its most experienced and loyal employees,” concluded Whitlock. "It’s a massive symbol of everything that fueled Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.”

But ESPN's research department concluded that the media narrative is not affecting the network's standing among sports fans: "Does it affect their viewing behavior? Not in any material way. Indeed, in 2016 and for the third straight year ESPN was the highest-rated full-time cable network among Men and Adults aged 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54."

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