The business side of sports can sometimes be boring. After all, it is business. It’s talking about numbers, advertisers, eyeballs, ratings, sponsorships, brands, and financial statements. Somehow on Monday, the world was flipped on its head as ESPN was trending for two different reasons: the return of Jemele Hill to SportsCenter and the ending of a partnership with Barstool Sports before it even really started.
Hill has been the subject of multiple stories due to her issues with President Trump, her Twitter feed, her support for protests during the national anthem and subsequent suggestion of a boycott — but then saying don’t really boycott. Hill was returning from a two week suspension. Everything she has done since her suspension has been perfectly executed. She met with the president of ESPN, John Skipper. She issued an apology to her coworkers. She didn’t back down from her viewpoints, but kept herself out of the spotlight. Everything was going well for the World Wide Leader.
Then ESPN PR and John Skipper announced that ESPN would be cancelling Barstool Van Talk, and Barstool Sports and ESPN became the No. 2 trending topic in the United States on Twitter — it was at No. 15 worldwide.
Here’s the problem: ESPN wants to expand its viewership into fans who consume a lot of digital content. Those fans tend to be incredibly loyal. The lifetime value of those fans is high. It’s a market traditional media companies struggle to connect with. It’s why Katie Nolan was a huge talent acquisition for ESPN. It’s why they even considered Barstool as a partner.
Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take is one of the most downloaded sports podcasts on iTunes. It has a huge following. It’s also associated with the controversial Barstool Sports brand. The content on Barstool is controversial for a reason. That’s where its appeal lies with the demographic previously discussed.
ESPN and Barstool partnering was always a questionable decision since ESPN is a Disney owned company. Disney isn’t out there trying to be cutting edge when it comes to controversial content. Even with the 1 a.m. time slot, the partnership was just odd. It made sense for Barstool since they wanted to grow their brand. ESPN was apparently making a push to gain traction with Barstool’s incredibly loyal fan base. But make no mistake, the risk was all ESPN’s.
Then the natural backlash happened. There was an issue with Sam Ponder, in which she criticized one of the hosts of Barstool Van Talk incorrectly. She then — correctly — criticized the president of Barstool for his comments. The damage for ESPN internally was done. The outside pressure was obvious before an internal issue was even raised. ESPN chose an odd partnership. There was very little chance to thread the needle where it was going to end well.
In the end, ESPN made a lose-lose decision. The partnership was always a bit odd even if they pined after the typical Barstool Sports’ consumer. Now ESPN angered its internal employees and people who despise Barstool. They also angered Barstool’s rabid fan base. That’s the definition of lose-lose.
They did this all for a show that was aired at 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning. What type of return were they looking for? Why partner in the first place? Again, Barstool gets more publicity, and its fans will back the company no matter what. ESPN got controversy, angry employees, criticism from people who wondered why they partnered with Barstool, and the anger and fury of the fans of a company that was once criticized for “weaponizing social media.”
It just seems like an unforced error. ESPN is losing subscription fees, but they still bring in the most viewers on television. It’s all relative. ESPN may be losing eyeballs but so are most other television channels that aren’t cable news channels. When a company hits a peak, there’s nowhere to go but down. But it’s important to note that down doesn’t mean the company is in trouble. ESPN didn’t need to put itself in the position it finds itself now. This misstep gives critics something to point to when they want to — wrongly — say ESPN is in trouble. It makes the perception the critics have been pushing seem like reality. It also gave Barstool a dress rehearsal to sell to competitors like FS1, NBC Sports, or other digital distributors.
ESPN will recover, because that’s what ESPN does. ESPN isn’t in trouble, but situations like this never really needed to happen. Now ESPN and Barstool have other questions to answer: will Big Cat or PFT Commentor be allowed back on ESPN airways? Will Barstool ask them to not go on shows like SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt or the Ryen Russillo show? Will ESPN personalities like SVP, Rachel Nichols, Russillo, or others be allowed on Pardon My Take? This all could have been avoided if ESPN decided ahead of time that a full partnership wasn’t worth the trouble.
For one day, the business of sports media was the focus of social media. It was what everyone was talking about. That is usually bad for the big players in sports media. If someone told me two years ago that the business of sports media was going to be the biggest story on the internet I would’ve laughed. Somehow that happened.