Though some maintain ESPN's decline in ratings and subscriptions has little to do with the company's move towards left-leaning political commentary, one analytics firm says the data suggest otherwise.
In Ohio, for example, ESPN saw a noticeable drop in Republican viewership in 2016, which coincides with the sports media group's sharper shift towards partisan commentary, according to Deep Root Analytics.
The data firm, which matches television viewership against local TV audiences that have been broken up into political, advocacy and commercial groups, said it reviewed two years' worth of trend information from Ohio specifically because of the state's designation as an election-year battleground state.
"In our analysis, a clear trend emerges: ESPN's viewership in this key swing state market became less Republican during 2016," the group reported Thursday.
The report added, "Specifically, in 2015, the ESPN audience on average skewed Republican across all dayparts, ranging from 12% more Republican (Early News, Late Fringe, Overnight) to 21% more Republican than Democratic (Early Morning)."
In contrast, the group continued, "every daypart on ESPN [in 2016] became less conservative, with Daytime being only 2% more Republican than Democratic, while Late Fringe and Overnight programming became 10% and 12% more Democratic than Republican – a 22 and 28 point shift, respectively."
Put more simply, ESPN's audience skewed to the right in 2015, and then changed somewhat dramatically the next year. This was also the case for ESPN2.
ESPNU, on the other hand, "was the only network that retained its mostly Republican audience," while the Spanish-language network ESPN Deportes, "became even more Democratic in 2016 than it already was in 2015," the group reported.
"To be sure, the ESPN layoffs signal a larger business challenge facing the network. But at least in Cincinnati, the partisanship of viewers noticeably shifted – just as ESPN's problems got worse," the analytics group reported.
Here's a visualization of the data, via Deep Root Analytics:
The data report comes just a day after ESPN announced it had let go more than 100 reporters and on-air personalities, including longtime National Football League reporter Ed Werder, Major League Baseball reporter Jayson Stark, SportsCenter anchors Jaymee Sire, Chris Hassel, Jay Crawford and many others.
The Deep Root report also comes not long after Nielsen Media Research reported ESPN had lost roughly 10,000,000 subscribers in the last five years.
Though there's an argument to be made that the cable news group's failing subscriptions and ratings have something to do with the company's increasingly political commentary, it's important to remember that the trend of Americans moving away from cable bundles is also likely a huge factor in all of this.
At any rate, it doesn't appear the network will back off the political stuff anytime soon.
"Sports has always intersected with culture and politics. It isn't a recent phenomenon; it's been true for more than a century," ESPN's Jim Brady said in an editorial this month. "There is no denying that culture, sports and politics are fused together more today than at any time in recent memory, and there's an argument to be made that ESPN is rightfully taking advantage of that trend."
"Those of you who have not held your tongue about ESPN's move away from an all-sports-all-the-time mantra also should not hold your breath waiting for a change," he added. "ESPN has made it clear: It's not sticking to sports."