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How Trump is using NFL and ESPN as his political tools

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

President Donald Trump has discovered that two of the biggest entities in the American sports world, the National Football League and ESPN, make effective political punching bags.

And he’s unlikely to stop hitting them any time soon.

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, Trump tweeted nine times; three of the tweets were about sports. One congratulated the Pittsburgh Penguins, who visited the White House that day to commemorate their 2017 Stanley Cup win. In the other two, he trashed the NFL (“getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country”) and ESPN (“tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”).

In the 17 days between Sept. 23 and Oct. 11, he tweeted about the NFL 15 times.

Trump discussing the NFL player protests in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sept. 22. (AP)

And that’s just on Twitter. At a Sept. 22 rally in Alabama, during a three-minute stretch of a longer speech, Trump excoriated NFL team owners: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'”; mocked the NFL’s declining TV ratings: “NFL ratings are down massively… The number one reason happens to be that they like watching what’s happening with yours truly”; criticized NFL referees for calling too many penalties: “They’re ruining the game”; and encouraged fans to walk out of games if a player kneels during the anthem: “If you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop.”

Two weeks later, he’s still at it, and he’s brought his vice president into it. Mike Pence attended an Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers game with his wife on Sunday, and after 23 of the 49ers players kneeled in protest, Pence and his wife left the game, and Pence tweeted, “I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”

The rhetoric is arguably working: it’s firing up Trump’s base, and it’s casting a political pall over the current football season. The NFL has quickly become one of the most divisive brands in America.

Overall TV ratings for NFL games have dropped from last year, and although Trump’s crusade may not be the direct cause, behavior in Week 3 suggested that football fans are closely tracking the controversy: Viewership of all of the pre-game shows went way up, while viewership of the actual games dropped.

So, how did Trump land on the NFL and ESPN as his favorite targets of the moment, and what does verbally attacking them accomplish?

Trump’s long-standing animosity toward the NFL

Trump has history with the NFL.

In 1983, Trump bought the New Jersey Generals, a team in the United States Football League (USFL), for a reported $9 million (though Trump has since only paid $5 million). Shortly thereafter, he convinced his fellow USFL owners to sue the NFL. The idea was to move the USFL to the fall in order to compete with the NFL over anti-trust, seeking damages of $1.7 billion. The overt issue was over television rights contracts, but the implicit idea was to force a merger between the USFL and NFL. Trump and the USFL owners won the case — but the jury awarded them $1. (The NFL appealed, and four years later the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the judgment; with interest, the final award came to $3.76.) The costs of the lawsuit, and paltry result, killed the USFL.

In 2014, Trump bid for the Buffalo Bills after owner Ralph Wilson died. Trump didn’t get the team: Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, got the Bills for a reported $1.4 billion.

By 2014, Trump had Twitter (it launched in 2006, he joined in 2009) as an outlet to air his grievances. In a series of tweets in October 2014, he went off on the NFL: Trump questioned its tax exemption status; mocked its TV ratings dip; and said that if he had gotten the Bills, he would have produced a better team than the Pegulas could.

Three years later, everything in Trump’s life has changed (he’s president) and yet, not much has changed in his tweets: he’s still slamming the league’s “massive tax breaks” (even though the NFL dropped its tax-exempt status in 2015) and ridiculing its TV ratings dip. The difference is that now, every criticism is framed around the issue of player protests, and “disrespecting” the American flag and the national anthem.

It’s worth pointing out that Trump’s tweets about the NFL are occasionally so misleading that the NFL has felt compelled to publicly refute it.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is “finally demanding that all players stand” for the anthem, likely inspired by reports that NFL owners will meet next week to decide on whether to implement a new rule that players must stand (such a move would be an attempt to end the controversy). But no decision has been made yet.

The NFL issued a statement in response: “Commentary this morning about the Commissioner’s position on the anthem is not accurate.”

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday evening, Trump hit the NFL again. He said that the league should have suspended Colin Kaepernick, the first player to kneel, “for one game, and he would have never done it again. They could have then suspended him for two games, and they could have suspended him again if he did it a third time, for the season, and you would never have had a problem.”

Trump jumped on the ‘ESPN went liberal’ train

Then there’s ESPN, a separate but not unrelated issue.

Trump did not ignite the very real political firestorm around the Bristol, Conn.-based sports network, but he saw it and exploited it, stoking it further.

The narrative that ESPN, at some point, “went liberal,” or at the very least became more overtly political, results from a string of events that angered conservative sports fans: ESPN gave Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2015; ESPN fired baseball analyst and vocal conservative Curt Schilling in April 2016 for offensive social media posts; and ESPN held a special town hall on race relations with President Barack Obama in October 2016.

Of course, ESPN’s revenue declines are not happening because of politics. They are a result of  brutal, but simple math: widespread cord-cutting plus rising programming rights fees. ESPN is paying more than ever to show certain games, at the same time people are canceling their entire cable packages.

But the truth doesn’t really matter here: if enough people (vocal, angry people, who make their thoughts known on social media) believe that ESPN has become a liberal sports network, it becomes a sort of truth. And a recent run of political incidents for ESPN have not helped matters: moving an announcer named Robert Lee off of calling a college football game at Virginia in August and not disciplining SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill after she called Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet in September.

After the Hill tweet, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it a “fireable offense“; two days later, Trump tweeted about ESPN, appearing to demand an apology, but did not name Hill specifically.

More than three weeks later, Trump again tweeted about ESPN, this time naming Hill and saying “it is no wonder ESPN ratings have tanked.”

Much like with the NFL, Trump has recent history with ESPN, from when he had just begun his presidential campaign. After his comments about Mexican immigrants in summer 2015, Nascar and ESPN both canceled events that they had scheduled to take place at Trump properties.

Trump put out an official statement on Trump letterhead that read, in part:

“The disassociation of ESPN and Nascar with the Trump Organization was covered by the press in headlines all over the world as though it was a major setback for me. Really? What were the losses… In the case of ESPN, they cancelled a simple golf outing at my course… Likewise, they lost a large deposit.”

What the NFL and ESPN have in common

Both the NFL and ESPN have seen TV ratings dips in the past two years — that is fact, though in the case of the NFL, various outlets twist and distort the numbers from week to week to downplay or exaggerate the story to fit their narrative.

Through Week 4 of the NFL season, overall viewership of games (not pre-game coverage) was down almost 10% compared to the first four weeks of last season, according to Nielsen. Similarly, ESPN has seen steady subscriber losses.

Neither of these entities are suffering specifically because of politics. It is likely that the player protests have contributed, at least somewhat, to the NFL ratings dip, though for ESPN it’s unlikely political outrage has had any significant impact. But neither one is suffering directly due to a supposed political problem.

But that doesn’t matter: both are entrenched, powerful sports properties that are now the subject of intense scrutiny; both appear to be slowly losing their dominant grip on their industries, due to a wide range of business headwinds.

And Trump is deftly making political hay out of these situations in the exact same way. We’ve called ESPN a “political punching bag” this year, but an even better analogy might be a piñata: Trump keeps hitting both, because every time he hits them, candy comes out. He’s likely to keep hitting them.

[For more on the business and politics of the NFL, listen to our Sportsbook podcast. Episode 6 focuses on the NFL team owners.]

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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