ESPN Subscriber Losses Finally Start to Slow Down After Network Shifts Focus to Sports, Not Politics

Robin Marchant/Getty Images for ESPN

ESPN seems to be making its first steps in stopping the hemorrhage of subscribers for its network.

The network lost 2 million subscribers in 2018, and while that loss is substantial, it is not nearly as steep as it has been in the past few years. ESPN lost 15 million subscribers between 2011 and 2018.

As Outkick the Coverage reported, there is a general decline in cable subscriptions and television viewership over the past decade, but ESPN has been disproportionately impacted by this general decline.

Many believe the losses at ESPN since 2011 are the fault of the overpoliticization of the network. Just over the past few months, some of its discussion topics and decisions have earned backlash, including:

  • Host Stephen A. Smith said that Tiger Woods is “not black” in response to comments Woods made about having “respect” for the president’s office.
  • Then-host Jemele Hill called Trump a “white supremacist.” She later left the network.
  • ESPN declined to show the national anthem before NFL games to avoid the controversial protests.

In September, Disney CEO Bob Iger stated that he believed ESPN became too political and that he wanted to change that. Disney is the parent company of ESPN. Iger hired Jimmy Pitaro as ESPN’s president, and Pitaro has led the shift away from politics.

Iger told The Hollywood Reporter:

“There’s been a big debate about whether ESPN should be focused more on what happens on the field of sport than what happens in terms of where sports is societally or politically. Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right. He has brought back some balance.”

That added balance may have helped ESPN slow its losses. Since Iger’s September interview, ESPN has mostly stayed outside of the political headlines, which can be especially difficult in an election year.

This is a significant change of pace from earlier in the year. The network lost 500,000 subscribers in April alone as it launched a new show, “Get Up,” that was produced by a former executive producer for Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.

It looks as though ESPN may have finally taken the hint that people don’t want to receive a political lecture with their sports highlights.

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