Despite the evidence of fans being repelled, Sports Leader ESPN decided to forego sports this week.
This week, a Minnesota court decided on the sentencing of Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin, the culmination of a murder case and a year of social upheaval over the death of George Floyd. Far from being the end of the story, or the energy it kicked off, it does signify a mile marker at least in the activist movement. But, as we learned later in the day, it is not the end of sports activism.
As the sentence was being announced, the event was covered by ESPN — extensively. Not serving as simply a segment on SportsCenter, or a topic kicked around on one of the numerous pundit programs, the verdict was covered live, pre-empting standard programming and remaining the topic for a duration. The network stayed with the coverage, running it continuously from 5 p.m., all the way up to 7:30 p.m., when it was contractually obligated to run the Major League Baseball game live.
Sports Illustrated reached out to the network and asked about the decision, and the spokesperson was steadfast that they had made a wise move, adding:
“Our flagship news program SportsCenter documented the unfolding news live and we will continue to capture the powerful intersection of sports and society through reaction, commentary and breaking news.”
This decision cements that the activist push we have endured in professional sports for the past few years is in no way about to ebb. The major athletic leagues last year fully embraced social activism in response to the Floyd controversy, with on-field insignia for Black Lives Matter, perpetual press conferences peppering players with questions on the matter, and even the NBA going so far to have its jerseys altered to reflect chosen approved slogans of an activist nature.
The viewing public — ensconced at home and eager to take its mind off of pandemic-induced anxiety — saw the blatant social strife being presented front and center in the forms of escapism and avoided the displays. The players were taking a knee, and the fans walked away. The NBA saw record lows for the playoffs. The baseball World Series experienced the lowest ratings ever seen. Even the Super Bowl saw a drop, as they had to rope in streaming numbers to boost the ratings to the low seen in 2007.
While some outlets attempted to massage these results, suggesting other things were a factor, a stark reality was exposed. A poll released last fall showed professional athletics plummeted in favorability with the public, settling barely above politicians. For ESPN to feign ignorance of this reality is as self-defeating a move as you can find.
The network that is entirely dependent upon sports obviously took a severe hit in the pandemic with the absence of content, but then, when that product did return, the network chose to ignore the indicators in the market. While fans begged off watching the games, the network went ahead with its annual sporting awards show last summer, The ESPYs, deciding to make it fully centered on activism. And what did that wise decision lead to? The show experienced a staggering drop of -88%, netting less than half a million viewers.
This is an in-house metric that the network could not ignore — and yet the Disney-owned property seems to be doing exactly that; instead of looking internally and trying to fix the problem, they choose to keep dribbling past the graveyard. It appears that if we ever intend to divest ourselves of the rigors of our days and find a diversion to allow us escapism, it will have to be found elsewhere beyond the sports arenas.