Deadspin, the perpetual cactus in ESPN’s side, had a field day with the sports network’s phony-baloney performance before advertisers in New York this week. Kevin Draper and Laura Wagner pointed out a huge gap between what’s going on at ESPN and the façade its brass displayed to advertisers. Here’s how they characterized the charade:
In the wake of bad-faith messaging about how ESPN’s supposed left-wing bias led to its financial slump, network executives certainly seem to be warily steering clear of anything that might be perceived as “liberal.”
In contrast, last year the suits at ESPN tripped over themselves in emphasizing a progressive agenda including cultural change and diversity. But what a difference a year with mega subscriber losses and layoffs makes! Deadspin reports:
This year, diversity-related buzzwords were few and far between. Maybe ESPN felt their commitment to reaching a non-white audience was sufficiently reflected in its programming choices—Michael Smith and Jemele Hill are SportsCenter hosts, Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre are getting their own show, the bilingual sports news show Nación is growing—but it certainly chose not to tout what those changes could mean.
Smith and Hill spoke to the advertisers, too. They told the mostly white audience that they might be “the black friends y’all never had.” Nice touch, ESPN. You’ve already turned off millions of customers and now you’re insulting potential advertisers.
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Aside from that awkward moment, ESPN completely avoided issues it can’t resist on-air -- like Colin Kaepernick, the North Carolina bathroom law and left-wing advocacy by coaches and athletes. In fact, and not taking its own advice, ESPN stuck to sports, for the most part. Good try, ESPN, but no one was fooled.
ESPN’s tepid presentation was “meticulously orchestrated and decidedly non-controversial,” and it “came off in part as a way of assuring all that the Worldwide Leader is sticking to sports,” Deadspin’s writers said.
In past years, ESPN President John Skipper has held press conferences following the presentation. Not so this year. He had been taken to task by media for the Curt Schilling firing previously, and this week he had “to attend a meeting.” Right.
Deadspin said Skipper can attend or skip any meeting he wants to, but he “ducked what was sure to be a volley of questions about layoffs, whether ESPN is a liberal network, whether he overpaid for live rights, and so on.”
Wagner and Draper came away from the charade with this characterization:
ESPN is now a company left protecting what it already won and what is already seeping away, not a company growing and building into the future. As Skipper proclaimed, ESPN is indeed making these changes from a position of strength; it’s just impossible to imagine that the best-case scenario is anything other than a managed decline. ESPN was on the defensive, and they are going to be on the defensive now for a very long time.