What Ramifications will ESPN Coverage Shift Have on the Brand?

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For years now, ESPN’s stable media channels have obeyed a hard and fast rule: “Stick to sports.” That rule was in play a few years ago when the network denounced an employee, Jemele Hill, for tweeting negative comments about the U.S. President. Recently, though, some people, both viewers and professional media critics, have noticed a shift, at least in the application of that policy.

Since protests escalated, the network has ramped up its coverage of athletes who have joined protests, canceled games, or chosen to speak up and speak out, rather than play the games they have loved all their lives. The coverage seemed to reach a tipping point after the death-in-custody of Jacob Black. Several NBA, MLB, and NHL teams postponed games, including playoff games, in support of protests against situations such as these. For the next few days, this was the major topic of conversation on ESPN’s flagship programs.

These walkouts spilled over, first, into coverage on multiple ESPN programs, then came to a head when Inside the NBA host Kenny Smith walked off the set after a brief statement of solidarity with protesting athletes.

Speaking of his walkout, Smith told the media: “Sometimes, we know being on the side of right there has to be uncomfortable for people to actually pay attention… I wish there was a society where you don’t have to do things to get attention, but that hasn’t been the case in any form for our communities…”

While many lauded both Smith’s stand and the further coverage of the walkouts by athletes on ESPN, others criticized the move, demanding that the network and its personalities “stick to sports.” This was the expectation, they said, and a mantra that ESPN had followed for many years, no matter what was happening in the wider world. These fans and critics have made it clear that they think ESPN and other sports media outlets need to stay away from politics.

ESPN even released a poll conducted by the network, which showed that most fans don’t want politics with their sports. “They had research that said viewers didn’t want to hear it,” one critic said: “They put that on their audience, but it was clear that (the network) was comfortable (avoiding politics).”

An ESPN spokesperson told the media that perspective was a “mischaracterization” of the network’s position. “We have said we aren’t covering pure politics, but clearly we cover (politics) when it intersects with sports, including (recently) as the sports world became a focal point of social unrest…”

Former ESPN analyst Cari Champion echoed some of these ideas when describing why she and some colleagues had started other projects, including a program called, tongue-in-cheek, “Stick to Sports.” Champion said about her efforts: “Many people asked us to ‘stay in that one lane.’ Those who tell you to stick to sports are uncomfortable with our take on what we see in the world and how it relates to sports… I feel that it is so important for us to speak up about what we see because what’s happening in the country requires someone who’s lived that life… All we’re asking right now, with our show, is for you to see us, the humanity in us…”

Those who have chosen to push back against the “stick to sports” mantra say they will continue to challenge both the expectation and the idiom where and when they believe it appropriate. What ramifications that message has for ESPN and other sports media brands is yet to be seen.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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