ESPN’s WokeCenter Collapsing Ratings Set Off Panic In Bristol

On Monday ESPN debuted a new morning show, “Get Up,” or as we prefer to call it on Outkick, WokeCenter AM. The show’s ratings were, to be put it mildly, a complete and total disaster. Only 283,000 people tuned in to watch the show’s debut, much less than the average viewership last April of 327,000 for SportsCenter AM.

On Tuesday ratings fell again, dropping to 243,000 viewers, and the overnight ratings for Wednesday suggest viewership will fall once more, to around 200,000 viewers. (Peppa Pig did over 750,000 viewers on Monday going head to head with WokeCenter AM. But, to be fair, it was a great episode.)

This is a cataclysmic debut, setting off a collapsing ratings cascade throughout ESPN’s day programming. Yesterday First Take had only 366,000 viewers because it received an awful lead-in from WokeCenter AM. And that failure to build an audience carries through all day long, resulting in lower viewership throughout the entire programming schedule.

Worst of all, in the final kick in the balls from the high priest of WokeCenter, the cocaine addled and fired for being extorted by a woman John Skipper, the ratings calamity for mornings on ESPN is actually a three ring circus of burning buildings. A raging conflagration of ineptitude. Consider — John Skipper broke up the most successful radio show in ESPN history, Mike & Mike, to launch WokeCenter AM with Mike Greenberg, which is now directly competing with Mike Golic’s radio show for viewers and advertisers. And in the process Skipper spent tens of millions of dollars on a brand new New York City studio to kick SportsCenter off the air, the most venerable brand on ESPN, and lose nearly half of ESPN’s morning viewers in the process.

In other words, in one incredibly disastrous move, Skipper torpedoed his most successful radio show of all time, blew up his most valuable TV franchise, and launched a dud of a new program. It isn’t just that WokeCenter AM is dying, it’s that it’s a suicide bomber who also took out Mike & Mike and SportsCenter.

John Skipper spent millions of more dollars a year to make millions of dollars less.

Cocaine really is a hell of a drug.

As if that weren’t enough the launch of WokeCenter AM was bungled from the start with Michelle Beadle ensuring everyone that she would continue to talk about far left wing politics all the time, with Jalen Rose telling the media that he’d talk about Donald Trump too, and then with Mike Greenberg trying to wave his hands and disclaim all political talk whatsoever.

The main headline for the Hollywood Reporter story about the show’s launch was, “ESPN plans to wake up woke with new morning show.”

As if that weren’t enough the cocaine fueled John Skipper signed salaries for all three main talents: Greenberg, Beadle and Rose leaked to the Hollywood Reporter and everyone back in Bristol was blown away to find out the three hosts of this new show were going to be receiving nearly $15 million. Wait a minute, many at ESPN asked, aren’t we firing hundreds of behind the scenes people to save money and now Michelle Beadle is making $5 million a year?

It’s already been proven that no one watches a show because of Michelle Beadle.

If you doubt me, ask NBC, which launched a show based around her that no one watched. People watched Beadle on SportsNation because she was on with Colin Cowherd, who people watch shows to see. No one turns on the television because of Beadle.

Based on my conversations with people inside ESPN, many at the company are rooting for this show to fail because they resent the salaries and money being spent on a show that most don’t believe in and they resent just as much that this show is in New York City. For a long time ESPN made living in Bristol a badge of honor, you were sentinels on a lonely sports frontier in Connecticut, but you all lived that life together.

Now ESPN suddenly has a brand new New York City studio and the cool kids, making all the money, get to go there to make a brand new show while all the losers get left behind in Bristol. It creates a substantial morale issue. Particularly when it’s coupled with the fact that everyone knows more job cuts are coming and everyone also knows that hundreds of people have all been fired to allow investments in a show like this.

Everything about this show’s open, has been an unmitigated failure.

(And by the way, let me pause here to respond to the people who ask, “WHY DO YOU CARE?” Uh, are you new to Outkick? I have always written about sports, media, and business. And I particularly love the intersection of all three. So that’s why. This story, whether I worked in sports media or not, would completely fascinate me.)

So what happens now? Well, it’s still possible that WokeCenter AM will regain the lost viewers and surge to ratings success. But is it remotely plausible at this point? Of course not. Most shows that fail at launch don’t turn into successes. Particularly not when a long hot summer of no real sports news looms until the merciful arrival of football season.

But after dozens of phone conversations with people in the TV and sports media industry, both inside and outside ESPN, I have picked up on several fascinating thoughts that I think tie in well with this story in general. So I thought I would break them down for you.

1. Mike Greenberg has a severe trust issue over the way he left Mike Golic. 

The fans of his radio show, and there were many, are not happy that he walked out on his long time partner and left him behind.

Worse than that, he’s now directly competing in the same timeslot with his old show.

I have no idea who thought this was a good idea, but it seems utterly absurd on its face. I left my afternoon radio show, 3HL here in Nashville, and have made a conscious decision to never compete with it. I don’t know if former listeners have noticed that, but I turned down local afternoon radio gigs and even start my Periscope and Facebook Live shows before their show starts in the afternoons. (The show was bumped up to two central recently, but I’d already established my own timeslot by then).

Why did I do that?

Because I liked the guys I did the show with, respected the audience we built, and didn’t want to compete head-to-head with them. Maybe listeners noticed, maybe they didn’t. But I haven’t ever been blamed by any of our listeners for leaving.

Not competing with my old show was my decision even though I do more of a national show now and less of a Nashville specific show.

So how in the world did ESPN executives, and Mike Greenberg, not realize that many people who had been waking up listening to Mike & Mike for nearly twenty years were going to be upset with the way that show ended? ESPN Radio would have been much better off just canceling the show than keeping Mike Golic in his time slot and allowing the other Mike to compete directly with him at the same company.

The result has been that both Mikes are doing worse. The radio audience for Golic and Wingo has tanked and the audience for Greenberg’s new show has tanked too.

Go read Mike Greenberg’s Twitter mentions if you doubt me about his fans being upset, they’re brutal. I hope he isn’t reading them too. Because if he is there is no way he’s sleeping at night.

2. The show’s casting makes no sense. 

You have two hosts, Greenberg and Beadle, and one guy who talks about the NBA, Jalen Rose. What sense does that make? (It clearly was an attempt, based on the show’s launch date, to take advantage of ESPN having the NBA playoffs in April and May, but what happens for the other ten months of the year? Sure, the show may get a small boost during that time, but remember, the NBA Finals are on ABC.)

So this trio might work during the NBA playoffs, but is there anyone waking up early in the morning in July who is going to think, “I can’t wait to spend my morning with Greenberg, Beadle and Rose?”

How many people see sports news happen and think, “I can’t wait what Michelle Beadle and Mike Greenberg have to say about this!”

Can you even think about any sports opinion that either of these two have ever had that made you take note? Beadle has gone off the rails politically, if she were a MSNBC morning host, maybe I’d be intrigued to see what she has to say, but she’s now become one of the women ESPN employs who says, “I’m a woman, I deserve the right to an opinion!” And then you’re like, “Okay, what’s your opinion?” And then she says, “No, you didn’t hear me, I’m a woman, I deserve the right to my opinion!” And you have to say again: “Okay, what’s your interesting sports opinion?”

And then she says: “Donald Trump hates women and minorities!”

That’s literally the only note they have to play. (Sidenote, I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Sarah Spain’s contract negotiations with John Skipper were like).

We live in an era when opinion has never been more common or easily shared. So in order for your opinion to stand out, it has to be unique and thought provoking.

You may hate them, but there are millions of people who see the latest story about LeBron and think, “I can’t wait to see what Skip Bayless (or Stephen A. Smith) is going to say about this!”

That’s not true of anyone on this show.

ESPN has taken bland to another level with this crew.

I think that’s why, and this is the most alarming data of all, the viewership among 18-34 year old’s on ESPN has declined by over 40% on this show.

Over 40%!

These are the viewers who are capable of making the switch to podcasts or social media or streaming devices. And they’re abandoning the show en masse.

3. Morning TV viewers are creatures of habit and ESPN broke their habits with this show.

ESPN spent years convincing people to put on their televisions in the morning for the latest, most up to date sports news. Now they’re turning on the television and seeing a bunch of people sitting around a desk outside the SportsCenter brand.

Maybe there’s a ton of people who want this morning discussion from ESPN, but if they do, can’t they already find that on other channels?

Somehow ESPN has lost over 100,000 viewers in the first month of this new show. Where are those viewers going? We don’t know.

But we do know that most of them are young and have many entertainment options.

So ESPN managed to lose a ton of viewers and retain the older ones. The exact opposite goal of every programmer.

4. The show isn’t fresh. 

Maybe we’ve just reached the point in time where every sports show has already been done before.

But this one feels like a mash up of all the things people don’t like about ESPN — people debating the same stories all day long every day.

If you want to be really successful you want people to experience your content and think, “There’s nothing else like this!” If they say that then one of two things will happen — you’ll have a tremendous success or you’ll have a tremendous failure. But at least you’re trying.

Here it appears to me that ESPN has attempted to avoid failure.

And if you just try to avoid failure you often end up with a boring and uninspiring product. And there’s nothing worse than a boring and uninspiring product when people have this many entertainment options.

5. STUDIOS DON’T MATTER!

Remember when ESPN spent a hundred million dollars on a brand new SportsCenter set in Bristol? And then ratings didn’t go up at all?

So why decide to spend tens of millions on a new New York City studio when the evidence already showed you that was wasted money?

People care about what is said and who is saying it, not what the backdrop looks like behind them.

Focus less on the cosmetics and more on the content.

6. One prominent sports executive to me: “If this were a sports franchise, you’d be trying to jettison salaries and rebuild at this point.”

ESPN makes a living criticizing the decisions of sports teams, general managers, owners and players.

Well, ironically, the dumbest sports decision of 2018 may well be the launch of WokeCenter AM. It killed the golden radio goose, the most valuable morning franchise on sports TV, and killed viewership.

If Greenberg, Beadle and Rose are making $15 million a year and drawing 200,000 people, how many viewers would three talent making $1.5 million a year draw? Would it really be that many fewer? And why couldn’t you do this show from Bristol?

Oh, you already tried that and it was called SportsCenter AM and was more successful than this show?

Yikes.

7. Okay, so what would you do if you were in charge of this show?

I’d probably try and put Greenberg and Golic back together again and do the radio show on TV live from New York City. You could put Beadle between them if you needed to still incorporate her in the show, but I’d probably just put her back on SportsNation and keep her on the NBA. She gets to keep her salary so I’m sure she’d be fine with this.

I’d bring on Jalen Rose and other single sports talkers to discuss their area of expertise, but he’s not necessary for three hours.

You could give Trey Wingo, Greenberg’s radio replacement, the booth to call Monday Night Football as the consolation for replacing him on radio.

Then I’d have Greenberg apologize to everyone for ever leaving the radio and hope it worked.

I’m not sure if Mike Golic would do that at this point, but I think it’s the only way to salvage a disaster.

In the meantime, new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has his first serious challenge — John Skipper left him a burning dumpster fire of programming decisions. Can Pitaro put out the fire? Or is he going to get consumed by it too?

I’d say tune in to WokeCenter AM to find out, but we already know you, like most of the rest of the country, won’t be watching.

So just keep reading, listening and watching Outkick instead.

Unlike ESPN, our audience just keeps growing.

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