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Volume 23 No. 24
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Sports TV executives content to keep politics out of the discussion

The past week in sports media showed how far sports TV executives will go to keep divisive U.S. politics out of sports. Some on-air talent may want to talk politics during their shows, but sports TV executives increasingly are taking a harder line in making sure they stick to sports.

Early last week, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro refused to budge on the network’s “no politics” policy after one of its top personalities, Dan Le Batard, devoted a radio segment to bash the behavior of people attending one of President Donald Trump’s rallies.

A day later, NBC Sports Group’s top ad sales executive, Dan Lovinger, said one of the Olympics ad sales pitches that is resonating most with ad buyers is that the Olympics is a politics-free environment that will be sandwiched between the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention next summer.

ESPN personality Dan Le Batard pushed for the flexibility to talk politics on his show but executives balked.
Photo: espn images
ESPN personality Dan Le Batard pushed for the flexibility to talk politics on his show but executives balked.
Photo: espn images
ESPN personality Dan Le Batard pushed for the flexibility to talk politics on his show but executives balked.
Photo: espn images

“At an important time when political discourse will be peaking, the Olympics will be the most unifying event our country has seen in years,” said Lovinger, executive vice president of advertising sales. “Brands understand this and will benefit from the positive association with the Olympic movement.”

The line between sports and politics has become blurrier recently. In the past few weeks, for example, ESPN was not shy about covering the feud between Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe and Trump. It covered the Red Sox’s White House visit — a political sideshow where most of the team’s Latin and African American members stayed away in protest.

But TV executives increasingly believe the line between sports and politics is not blurry at all. It’s an easy decision to cover Rapinoe or the Red Sox visit. But a discussion of the White House’s immigration policy — which is how they viewed Le Batard’s segment — does not have a place on any ESPN platform, its executives say.

ESPN says it has research that shows its fans turn the channel when political storylines become part of the programming. Similarly, NBC is finding that ad buyers increasingly are looking for programming that is free from politics.

“[At the Olympics,] everybody roots for one team,” Lovinger said. “There’s no red, there’s no blue; it’s just red, white and blue, and that appeals to the advertisers quite a bit.”

Lovinger referenced the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018, when North Korea and South Korea came together to light the cauldron.

“The Olympics still are an incredible environment for brands,” he said. “The advertisers vote with their wallets and we’ve seen increased support as the Games have gone on.”

The idea that the Olympics is free of politics is fanciful. It was 51 years ago that American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos conducted a protest during the medal ceremony. The ongoing battle over doping prevention and punishments in Olympic sports is a proxy for the broader disputes between Russia and the western alliance. Former Olympics host Bob Costas gained a reputation for talking on-air about political problems in the host countries.

Lovinger said NBC will remain committed to covering those stories, even if he is selling advertisers on a politics-free zone.

“If something is a story, it will be part of our coverage,” he said. “There may be some political discourse. But I guarantee you that it will be far less than what’s going on two weeks prior or two weeks after at the conventions.”

 

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.