Donald Trump and the NFL Response Was a Temporary Boom for ESPN Talk Ratings

By Jason Lisk

September was a volatile month at ESPN, as the NFL season opened with Jemele Hill’s comments about Donald Trump being a white supremacist. That story traveled beyond the normal sports realm and even reached the point where the White House press secretary responded. The network faced plenty of noise about a perceived liberal bias as the football season got underway, and then Donald Trump ratcheted things up when he went after the NFL and its players in a speech on Friday night, September 22nd.

Right before that moment, we had watched a full day of daytime programming on both ESPN and FS1 to examine how much key talk shows actually touched on politics. Trump’s comments, though, nuked those ratios and it became the main NFL story for the weekend and leading into the following week.

While ESPN was facing outward criticism from the right, that incident proved to be a temporary boom for ESPN’s daytime programming, coming right as the network reorganized its leadership structure for SportsCenter. People may say that they don’t want politics in their sports, but a ratings comparison shows that for the early part of the next week the controversy and noise brought more viewers.

To look at this, we examined two stretches of programming. The first was the key morning show First Take. First Take was moved from ESPN2 to ESPN last January, so to properly measure the impact we also included the corresponding ratings of the 10 am SportsCenter that swapped places to ESPN2, to measure that entire time slot.

The other was the 6 pm SportsCenter (SC6), hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, and the two debate-style shows that lead into that time: Around The Horn and Pardon The Interruption.

ESPN’s ratings declines and loss of subscribers has been an ongoing issue, and any year-over-year analysis shows the decline over a large enough period of time. When we looked back at the first three months of SC6, year-over-year declines of 12-15% on a weekly basis were the norm by April and early May for both PTI and SC6. First Take has only avoided this if you ignore the “rob Peter to pay Paul” situation where it was moved to ESPN to stem declines.

Here is a comparison for the period from the start of the NFL season (the week of September 11th) up until Donald Trump’s Friday night comments, and then the three-day period at the start of the next week (September 25 to 27), and then the five weekdays since that time. All data is from Showbuzz Daily. (NOTE: Around The Horn and Pardon the Interruption numbers exclude some days the week of September 18, 2016 that were on ESPN2 because of hockey).

The viewers in the three weekdays after Trump’s statements and the NFL response were overall flat year-over-year across these programs, which, in comparison was quite the increase. SC6 had its largest numbers during this stretch with 618,000 viewers on September 26th (it is on ESPN2 every Monday because of MNF Countdown). Only one other day during this period (Tuesday, September 19) did it exceed 500,000. PTI also had its two highest viewership days on Monday and Tuesday, while First Take’s Tuesday viewership was only surpassed by the first morning after week 1 of the NFL season concluded.

The numbers show that the rebound was mostly short-lived. SC6 is the only one that hasn’t returned or exceeded early YOY drop-offs through this Wednesday. But for a few days, ESPN benefitted from the President not sticking to politics.