How Much Has the Sports Audience Changed After Woke-ism and Political Commentary?

(AP Photo/David Kohl, File)

Yesterday, there were two pretty big events in sports media that were overlooked because the news of the day was kind of hectic.

While most people were worried about Congress, President Joe Biden, the verdicts in the Duggar and Smollett cases, and other high profile stories, former Indianapolis Colts punter and current WWE commentator and online personality Pat McAfee announced a major deal between his company and FanDuel worth $30 million a year.

McAfee retired from pro football in order to pursue a career as a writer and media figure. He spent a lot of time on the nationally syndicated morning show, The Bob & Tom Show, got hired by Dave Portnoy at Barstool, and eventually left there after getting a ton of experience building an online audience to start his own brand/company. Since then, he has continued to build that audience, using his platform to get himself and his colleagues appearances on national shows and events (McAfee himself made several regular appearances on ESPN’s College GameDay). He then went on to be a regular commentator on WWE’s SmackDown every Friday night.

Also happening yesterday was an episode of Three Martini Lunch at Ricochet that you should give a listen. In this episode, Jim Geraghty and Greg Corombus interview Bob Costas, who wanted to challenge perceptions of him that the right has held. The interview was a fascinating one, and Costas gives a lot of insight into major events happening right now, like the Olympics in Beijing, companies and sports organizations in bed with the Chinese, and woke-ism in the sports world. Costas (I think rightly) compares himself to Bill Maher in terms of being on the left but strongly criticizes a lot of what the far left woke-ism is doing to the country (in his case, particularly the sports world).

In the scheme of sports and sports coverage, these stories are barely a blip on the radar, but together they paint a picture of something we know is there but isn’t getting a whole lot of attention.

Much like traditional news media, traditional sports media is facing an uphill climb against an audience that is changing.

In 2017, ESPN re-branded the 6 p.m. hour of SportsCenter as SC6 (or simply The Six) with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith as the anchors. Initially, the show saw a ratings boost, but it went downhill fast, and then absolutely tanked when Hill called Donald Trump a white supremacist in a Twitter tirade (she was later suspended by the network over a tweet advocating protesting Jerry Jones by calling advertisers and corporate interests). ESPN later admitted that they made a mistake centering a show around those two.

Hall of Fame sports commentator Bob Costas. (AP/Reuters Feed Library)

You don’t hear many reports about SportsCenter‘s ratings anymore. When people talk about ESPN’s ratings, it’s usually about the live sporting events. Same with Fox Sports. Gameday coverage gets attention, but the talk/panel shows don’t draw like they used to. Often, the high points of those shows (like Stephen A. Smith’s rants) are mostly viewed via clips posted to social media.

Those anchors, though, lean to the left and they don’t have a problem weighing in on hot-topic issues. Like The Six, it appears to be driving audiences away. When people want sports coverage, they check places like The Athletic or find reporters on Twitter. Or check sports apps. They aren’t tuning in for those analyses if they aren’t happening on the gameday pre-shows. They are getting the headlines and moving on, and you don’t need TV shows for that.

That’s why the Costas interview is so interesting. He maintains his gun remarks were taken a bit out of context, but also admits he shouldn’t have discussed the issue in the time frame he had. Costas, whether you like him or not, always slipped in commentary while there was a break in a game or between Olympic events. The gun remarks that he became infamous for among the right came when he had roughly a minute to talk, and he says now that was clearly not enough time to get across the point he wanted to make.

He is able to admit a mistake, although his underlying sentiment hasn’t changed. And he understands that the woke-ism in sports is killing the audience and coming off as really hypocritical as the NBA, LeBron James, the International Olympic Committee, and others focus entirely on social justice and ignore the human rights abuses from their “partners” in China. But where Costas slips commentary in during downtime in games or between events in short bursts, the commentators who are chasing audiences away have tons of time on the air to say something foolish and then double-down on it, driving folks elsewhere. They don’t go to Barstool or watch McAfee for ideological purposes. They go to those platforms to have fun and enjoy the content.

But when you look at other data, you also see something else. Online platforms like Barstool Sports and the Pat McAfee Show are increasingly offering the content audiences do want. Their audiences are small (compared to bigger, longer-established outlets) but their online engagement is through the roof. The place where people are increasingly going for their sports coverage outside of live events is online streaming, podcasts, etc.

Couple that with most of the traditional outlets, like ESPN, ignoring the quickly growing market of sports betting/fantasy drafting. ESPN has shown interest in partnering up with companies Caesar’s or DraftKings, but they have been unwilling to pull that trigger. They offer some reporting on the betting odds, but only because they noticed other outlets passing them by. In contrast, McAfee has a $30 million/year deal with FanDuel, Caesar’s is making moves into several markets, Barstool has its own betting app, etc. Everyone is recognizing that the audience wants to be involved and have some fun while they’re watching a game or following their favorite team and players.

The traditional outlets are bleeding because they aren’t offering that fun much anymore. The point of watching these sporting events and taking part in a fantasy draft or throwing some money on a game is to have an escape from the dour seriousness of the world around us. Especially now.

When you aren’t offering an escape from that but rather bring it into your coverage, you’re chasing those people away. They are slow to recognize and change that, though. Maybe they never will change it.