Ditching politics-first sportscasters working out for ESPN, network boss says

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has found success by ditching politics-first sportscasters such as Jemele Hill, and overtly political programming, in order to win back its core customers who tune in for sports.

“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro told Los Angeles Times television and media reporter Stephen Battaglio in a feature published Monday.

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“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics."

— ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro

Pitaro told the L.A. paper that he needs to provide clarity, because “some of our talent was confused” on what the previous leadership expected.

“If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused,” Pitaro said.

Pitaro landed the top job at ESPN shortly after his predecessor, John Skipper, shocked the media industry by suddenly resigning in late 2017 when a drug dealer attempted to extort him by using his cocaine habit against him.

The Skipper era saw ESPN take a dramatic turn to the left, which help drive away viewers. Under Skipper, the network was accused of spending too much time covering Colin Kaepernick’s protests and was criticized for awarding the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner. Far-left voices were rewarded with high-profile gigs, while conservative personalities such as Curt Schilling were given the boot (Schilling was fired in 2016 after sharing a Facebook post regarding the North Carolina law that banned transgender people from using specific bathrooms).

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Skipper favorites such as Hill regularly made polarizing headlines. Hill famously tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists,” and outspoken feminist Michelle Beadle once told white men to “shut up and listen.”

Since Pitaro took over, Hill has left the company, Beadle was reassigned and less of an emphasis has been put on political storylines – helping increase revenue for 2018 by six percent, according to the Times. The network still employs anti-Trump former MSNBC star Keith Olbermann, but he’s stayed relatively quiet when it comes to spouting political opinions since ESPN announced his expanded role under Pitaro. (Although he did recently have to apologize for unkind remarks directed at a turkey hunter.)

“Say whatever you want about ESPN, but Pitaro is clearly a smart dude. He’s also 100 percent correct. Your average sports fan doesn’t give a damn about the political opinions of ESPN hosts and pundits. They just don’t,” Daily Caller reporter David Hookstead wrote. “Major shoutout to Pitaro for clearly having a good head on his shoulders. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the old regime.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger also appears happy with steps Pitaro has taken to right the ship.

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“Iger credited Pitaro with dialing down the political discourse on ESPN’s debate shows and its signature program ‘SportsCenter,’ as well as lifting ratings,” Battaglio wrote.

The Skipper era resulted in author and radio host Clay Travis regularly mocking the network’s flagship “SportsCenter,” but even Travis, one of the network’s biggest critics, acknowledged the favorable changes.

“Pitaro has smartly made the dismantling of WokeCenter a priority,” Travis tweeted on Monday.

The pivot away from politics has earned applause from viewers, media critics and sports fans, and ESPN employees are probably also happy with the result. Pitaro told the Times that the company isn’t planning on layoffs anytime soon and is now operating at an efficient level after years of turmoil under Skipper.

“We’ve done some brand research that suggests ESPN’s brand is stronger than it was a few years ago,” Iger said at a recent investors’ conference, according to Battaglio. “In general, if you look at what Jimmy’s performance has been ... it’s been really positive.”