Like it or not, ESPN isn't sticking to sports

“Hey, ESPN: Stick to sports.”

I’ve read thousands of social media posts and reader emails about ESPN over the past 15 months. If there’s one phrase that tends to surface most frequently, it’s that chestnut suggesting the network’s only proper place is in the athletics lane.

Yes, when it comes to ESPN -- the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” -- the concern of many fans is that it’s no longer focused enough on sports. Some complain too much focus has been placed on culture and politics, with the most fire directed at FiveThirtyEight, The Undefeated, the new SC6 show and even one of the network’s graybeards, Outside the Lines, the title of which describes exactly the coverage some would like to see less of.

As I wrote in November, the desire to draw a boundary between sports, culture and politics is a fool’s errand. Sports has always intersected with culture and politics. It isn’t a recent phenomenon; it’s been true for more than a century. If you don’t believe that, search the names Jack Johnson, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Moses Fleetwood Walker. (OK, I helped you out there).

ESPN, in fact, just removed any question about the sports-politics-culture intersection when it released new political guidelines that loosen the restraints on commentary about politics and culture, though stressing that such discussion should connect to sports whenever possible.

Whatever one thinks of the revised guidelines, one thing appears beyond dispute: The volume of non-sports content within ESPN’s empire has increased significantly in recent years. Some of that has been driven by the athletes ESPN covers, who have, in recent years, begun to speak more forcefully about societal and political issues. Some of it has resulted from the breakdown of the wall between on-field and off-field activities, thanks to the explosion of social media and proliferation of media sources that make any utterance by any sports figure potential news.

(For comparative purposes, I recently reviewed a few SportsCenter episodes from the past couple of decades, and it is indeed noticeable how little politics and culture intruded into the tsunami of highlights and witty banter that once marked that show. That was reflective of the overall newsier focus ESPN had in those days.)

But while culture and politics have certainly taken on increased import within ESPN’s coverage, it’s hard to credibly assert that ESPN-branded products do not remain overwhelmingly focused on sports. Is there more discussion about zeitgeist moments like the best picture flub at the Academy Awards, or the season finale of “The Bachelor”? Yes. Is the “A Different World“-themed opening for SC6 related to sports in any way? No. But check out any ESPN-branded property on TV, radio, print or digital/mobile and you’ll find that only a fraction of the content is fully disconnected from sports.

The more interesting recent development, to me, has been the network’s desire to embrace non-ESPN-branded properties that, quite intentionally, are not dominated by sports. The most notable of those efforts are The Undefeated and FiveThirtyEight.

A quick glance at the two sites makes it clear that, while sports are indeed crucial cogs in their editorial machines, it is not their primary reason for existing. The Undefeated’s own mission statement says the site is “the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.” And, though it has always covered sports from an analytical point of view, FiveThirtyEight became known to the world via politics, especially when the Nate Silver-led site correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election.

The existence of these sites might seem odd to those who pine for the days of ESPN being all sports all the time. But media is growing more disaggregated by the day, leading more and more cable subscribers to cut the cord, a trend that has significantly affected ESPN’s once-impenetrable broadcast business. Now, the network whose acronym originally stood for “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network” seems to be metaphorically reinserting the “entertainment” into its programming.

ESPN President John Skipper has endorsed these efforts, saying “We see the sites as ways to create great content in areas that are important to us, and in which we want to be leaders and to reach specific audiences.”

When asked whether ESPN might consider additional site launches in areas without any tendrils into sports, Skipper gave a qualified “no,” saying “We are a sports media company and are interested in pursuing ideas that have robust connections to sports. It would have to be a big tendril.”

FiveThirtyEight was founded by Silver as a polling aggregation web site in 2008. In 2010, the site began licensing its content to The New York Times. ESPN assumed ownership in July 2013 and relaunched the site in March 2014. It’s now beyond its first presidential election under ESPN ownership and looking to expand its offerings in a few key subject areas.

The Undefeated is much younger, having just launched in May 2016. The site seems as if it’s been around longer, if only because the concept was greenlighted by ESPN all the way back in August 2013 before it was derailed by internal battles between ESPN and the project’s original editor, longtime sports columnist Jason Whitlock.

While ESPN’s move away from sports as a primary vehicle is more noticeable on The Undefeated and FiveThirtyEight, the trend doesn’t completely stop at the border of ESPN-branded properties. The new SC6 -- the daily 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith -- also frequently strays from sports. ESPN’s own news release on the show says [with emphasis added]:

“Smith and Hill, who previously co-hosted ESPN2’s His & Hers and will be the first African-American duo to host SportsCenter on a regular basis, will combine some of the best elements of their previous program with SportsCenter for the new show, including a deliberate and well-paced conversational format in which they discuss sports topics, news, culture and social issues.”

For the purposes of this column, however, I’m going to focus on the non-ESPN branded sites, The SportsCenter franchise will be the subject of an upcoming public editor piece.

ESPN’s shift toward more cultural and political content -- even a slight-to-moderate one -- is noted with derision by some fans.

“Why does FiveThirtyEight write about things other than sports?,” one reader writes. “I go to ESPN.com because sports are fun. Politics are not always fun. Yet I go to the website every day and see that there is a new agenda-driven FiveThirtyEight article about why Trump won't win or something else other than sports. Why is FiveThirtyEight even affiliated with ESPN.com?”

Says another: “I want to know if there if is any way I can remove The Undefeated from the ESPN page when I view it. I, along with others that I know, do not feel The Undefeated page is an appropriate way to discuss racial issues. I have always used ESPN to get sports news coverage but have recently reconsidered using different media outlets. Making ESPN all about race and culture is ruining what was a great product.”

Evidenced by these types of comments and many others you can find on social media, moving beyond sports is not a decision that comes without risk. Brand extensions are never easy. If ESPN needs a reminder, it need only look at its own recent history. Its Grantland site, despite strong content, a deeply loyal fan base and a considerable investment from ESPN, closed in 2015 after, as one ESPN source told me, never coming close to making a profit.

The Undefeated has followed loosely the same formula as Grantland. It has amassed immense journalistic talent and been aggressive in its embrace of new storytelling forms. It also has the freedom to chase a wide range of topics rather than having to provide a complete news report each day -- something Undefeated editor Kevin Merida was consumed with in his previous role as managing editor of The Washington Post.

“It’s empowering in one sense: You don’t have the whole world that’s your responsibility,” Merida said. “At The Washington Post, I couldn’t take a pass on some stories. Here, it’s still a challenge, not just what you pursue but how you pursue it. What makes it an Undefeated story? What’s the right way into a story for us?”

A scan of The Undefeated on most days shows a range of content that extends far beyond sports. When The Undefeated put together its list of the 44 most influential black Americans in history, only five -- Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Serena Williams -- made their mark as athletes. Scanning the list of Undefeated pieces commemorating Black History Month, less than half were about sports.

These observations are not criticisms; they just show how The Undefeated -- and, by extension, ESPN -- is willing to stray from sports.

One area that has borne quick fruit for The Undefeated is events. In August, the site held a town hall in Chicago titled “Athletes, Responsibility, and Violence,” which was aired live on ESPN. In December, the network aired an hourlong conversation between Serena Williams and Academy and Grammy award-winning musician Common. The Undefeated has held five live events, with the most notable in October, when it held a conversation about sports, race and achievement with then-President Barack Obama at North Carolina A&T.

“Seeing Obama sitting below an Undefeated logo was a surreal moment,” said Danielle Cadet, a senior editor at The Undefeated.

Whether or not you’re on board with the heavy focus on culture and politics, The Undefeated’s body of work is impressive. Freed from the pressures of daily coverage -- it has the ESPN.com engine to cover the day’s sports news -- the site has produced many excellent longform pieces, such as Andrew Maraniss’ profile of former Alabama men’s basketball coach C.M. Newton, Jill Hudson’s dissection of Cam Newton’s fashion style, Kelley Carter’s chronicling of ballerina Misty Copeland’s trip to Cuba and Jesse Washington’s fascinating exploration of the 1916 lynching of his namesake.

The site also has experimented with new story forms, like this foray into video poetry by Newbery Medal-winning poet Kwame Alexander. Former NFL player Domonique Foxworth and The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates also host an entertaining weekly video series called “Locker Room Lawyer.” In July, the site scored a journalistic and philosophical coup when it published an exclusive statement from Michael Jordan, in which the basketball legend decried the shootings of African-Americans by police, and violence directed at police officers. In many ways, Jordan’s statement served as a sign of how much the scenery has changed at the intersection of sports and culture, as Jordan was once criticized by many for his desire to avoid that junction.

That said, The Undefeated has had some bumps. The site caught some well-deserved flak for a Jameis Winston piece that was too dismissive of serious sexual assault allegations leveled against the then-Florida State quarterback. And a column by “Pardon the Interruption” host Michael Wilbon that suggested advanced analytics and blacks don’t mix led to some backlash, even from colleagues inside ESPN.

Through the end of the last year, though, the biggest lingering question appeared to be whether enough people were reading the site. According to comScore, The Undefeated reached 834,000 unique visitors in December 2016, hardly a sterling number considering the strong promotion the site gets from ESPN’s home page and across other platforms. Before December, unique visitors had declined in four of the previous five months, after a 2016 high of 2,866,000 visitors in July.

But just as the calendar flipped, so did the numbers. In January, The Undefeated surged to 3,650,000 unique visitors, and followed it up with 3,318,000 in February. ESPN says the 2017 surge is due to a fix made to comScore’s tracking of The Undefeated that took effect in January.

Among those satisfied with The Undefeated is one very important client -- Skipper, who, when asked about the site’s progress, said he is “very happy. We have seen remarkable growth in the first 10 months.”

Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight is coming off a predictably successful election season, having earned its largest audience ever in November, when it reached 20,939,000 visitors. The site averaged a healthy 9,633,000 unique visitors per month in 2016, but fell victim to the same postelection traffic hangover as most news sites in December, scoring a year-low 4,407,000 unique visitors. January and February weren’t much better, with 5,089,000 and 4,704,000 visitors, respectively.

But that audience drop-off was just as predictable as strong election-season traffic. In fact, even during election season, FiveThirtyEight was working on a post-election plan that would broaden the site’s coverage areas, with a focus on five subjects: sports, culture, science/health, economics and politics. Each topic area has a team led by an editor and its own set of reporters while sharing data and design resources.

The expansion beyond FiveThirtyEight’s core of sports and politics doesn’t take away from the strong work it still does on both fronts. On Sept. 15, David Wasserman wrote a piece explaining how Donald Trump could win the White House while losing the popular vote, which is, of course, exactly what happened. During primary season, Clare Malone wrote a terrific piece titled “Why Donald Trump?” that used data and strong reporting to explain what seemed unexplainable -- then and now -- to many voters.

FiveThirtyEight shines in sports when it challenges the conservative orthodoxy of managers and coaches. Its piece laying out when NFL teams should go for two points after a touchdown -- and how often the statistically proper decision is eschewed -- is a perfect example. The site also called Villanova a “weak favorite” before the start of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, in which the Wildcats were victims of a second-round upset.

But it’s outside of sports and politics where FiveThirtyEight hopes to expand most aggressively. On the science front, the site has examined tornadoes, space sex, gender and math, wildfires and more. The economics section includes analysis of Trump’s recently released budget, a rebuttal of the argument that Trump’s win had nothing to do with economics and an assessment of the workplace progress women have made since 1970. The culture section has tackled the three types of Meryl Streep movies, the TV stars who were great in only one role and why classic rock isn’t what it used to be.

Like all sites that attempted to project the results of the 2016 presidential election, FiveThirtyEight was subject to strong criticism after Nov. 8, since, on that morning, it had given Trump only a 29 percent chance of winning the election. Although that was more of a chance than any other highly cited forecast gave him, it was indisputably south of 50 percent.

FiveThirtyEight’s Micah Cohen says the site got more right in the election than it got credit for. “We basically said that Trump had a real shot at winning and that he would overperform in the Electoral College,” he said. “It’s always touchy because I’m sympathetic to people who only looked at the forecast. But if you read our coverage, I think we got the election right.”

That said, Cohen has heard the criticism and understands it. “We do take that seriously. There’s a lot of research that shows people don’t see probabilities well,” he said. “We are thinking about -- and will continue to think about -- how we can present forecasts so that 70 percent isn’t perceived as the same as 99 percent.”

In fact, Cohen gave his own personal example of why sticking with data is important.

“The reason we do a forecast isn’t because readers like it,” he said. “Trump had an advantage in the Electoral College and there were tons of undecided votes. Still, at some point, I went to Nate and said, ‘We’re way out on this Trump-can-win thing. Maybe we should pull it back a bit.’ We didn’t. That’s why you have a model; to keep you honest in this way.”

For all the concern about ESPN straying from sports, some -- like Cohen -- had the opposite concern when recruited to join FiveThirtyEight.

“I was worried about that when I was deciding whether to come or not,” Cohen said. “Would they only care about sports? But they’ve been super supportive. Being inside ESPN has been a huge benefit.”

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. But there’s also no denying the presence of a fervent fan base that prefers the ESPN of old, meaning these worlds will continue to collide.

One thing is clear: 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.

ESPN has made it clear: It’s not sticking to sports.