On September 21, NBC News published a hit piece on Barstool Sports and its founder Dave Portnoy. What riled up the journalists to go after the popular sports website known for irreverent humour around sports culture?
Barstool Sports does not abide by PC pleasantries and instead provides a place where sports and political incorrectness co-exist. It’s a place for the average man to enjoy sports and a semblance of traditional masculinity.
Barstool has resisted the general leftward creep of mainstream sporting media, largely emanating from left-wing inspired journalism programs in North American universities. The subtext is clear. Get with the current cultural revolution or be caught in the crosshairs. For his part, Portnoy won’t back down “We will not bow down to the winds of PC culture whichever way they may blow,” Portnoy said in an email to NBC News. “If that makes us perceived as counter-culture then so be it.”
While this may seem a minor row between competing media companies, it represents a much larger issue that’s been brewing between sport journalists and their audience over the past few decades.
For Portnoy, he says “I’d say we represent the silent majority.” It’s hard to disagree. The leftward tilt of ESPN, for example, has resulted in show cancellations and a major loss of ratings and ad revenue. Since 2015, ESPN has lost considerable brand value amounting to billions in losses.
It attempted to launch a Social Justice perspective evening show, ESPN6, which crashed out after delivering less ratings than the previous iteration of the show. Newsflash to sport media companies, sports fans don’t want a political opinion infused into their sports coverage.
But why are so many sports journalists insistent on providing exactly that type of commentary. Historian Terry Gisteros, writing on sports journalists’ portrayal of the emergent rivalry between the Quebec Nordiques and the Montreal Canadiens in the late 1970s offers us a clue.
A little context is in order. In the 1970s, a fierce Quebec nationalist and separatist movement burst onto the scene, culminating in the election of separatist Rene Levesque as Premier in 1976. The Canadiens, represented Anglo domination (owned at the time by the Molson family, of Molson Brewing fame) while the upstart Nordiques represented the aspiring Quebec sovereigntist movement.
Gisteros noted that there was a muzzling of separatist voices in the newspapers owned by those hostile to Quebec nationalism. But the sports pages were not censored. On these pages, sports journalists engaged in political commentary in the pro-secession camp. They were inflicted with the same revolutionary zeal as their journalism school counterparts.
Gisteros noted “First of all, francophone sports journalists were products of the same environment and educational system that produced radical political and investigative journalists. They were likely to possess the same ideological leanings, the same progressive, militant spirit and the same approach to reporting.”
This example is now repeated in journalism schools across the country. Sports reporters are similarly schooled in the practices of left-wing political journalism. Even once staunchly conservative beats like financial reporters now drip with left-wing bias. Even the Columbia University Journalism Review admits as much, Journalism schools are producing a hive mind of journalists with similar biases.
But have the audiences shifted as well? It’s a difficult question to answer, but if you look at ratings of sports shows with overt left-wing political messages, it’s not great. The NFL learned the hard way when it embraced protests against the American flag, their ratings suffered as fans stayed away.
In Canada, we’ve seen similar incidents. This past summer, legendary Sports Radio host Bob McCown was let go from Sportsnet 590 THE FAN, replaced by new host Jeff Blair. While not overtly political, McCown was let go likely due to his high salary and the disappointing revenue numbers at Sportsnet overall, the changes in tone have not been subtle.
McCown, while not overtly political, represented the perspective of an entrepreneur, interested in the business of sports without entangling politics into his analysis. He was crass, highly opinionated, and brought traditional bravado to the mic.
Contrast that to Blair, who is more likely to opine on his left-wing views openly while on air (which is his right). It’s a similar pattern to what’s gone on at ESPN over the past decade. Controversial hosts who don’t tow a progressive line are removed in favour of those who hold more progressive views.
that to Blair, who is more likely to opine on his left-wing views openly while on air (which is his right). It’s a similar pattern to what’s gone on at ESPN over the past decade. Controversial hosts who don’t tow a progressive line are removed in favour of those who hold more progressive views.
But this strategy by media companies and sports journalists belies what draws most to sports in the first place. I’m not saying that sport and politics don’t or shouldn’t collide, I’m currently publishing a book on this very topic. My point is that when the average sports fan turns on sports talk radio, reads a sports column, or tunes into a sports broadcast network, they aren’t really interested in politics. They want to consume sports. Journalists want to use their platform to educate, to speak truth to power, and to advance their political ideals. Just as those Quebec separatists used the sports page to promote their political agenda, the politically influenced journalists emanating from Journalism schools are doing the same. It’s not a formula that can work in the long run.
As a traditionally conservative institution, I think it’s good to challenge traditional assumptions and values inherent in sports. There is room for left-wing perspectives. But just as those progressive activist journalists railed against the conservative power base in the 1960s and 70s, they have now ensconced themselves as the establishment.
Speaking truth to power in the sports world now falls on the shoulders of people like Dave Portnoy, not the overwhelming progressive makeup of sports media in the contemporary environment. It’s for that reason that NBC went after him, but it’s also why his site and other heterodox thinkers in sports media are growing their audience, while the establishment struggles.