Once an Escape, Sports Talk Embraces Politics

Just before flying to Las Vegas this week for the Super Bowl, Clay Travis announced his prediction for the game on his popular sports podcast, “OutKick.” The San Francisco 49ers would defeat the Kansas City Chiefs.

Other topics on that episode: the future of college football and whether President Biden is “actually capable” of serving in the White House.

“That’s going to be the question we’ll continue to break down for you,” Mr. Travis said.

The Super Bowl may be the one event that can bring Americans of all stripes together, but the chatter about it — and all of sports — is increasingly fracturing along partisan lines. A growing number of sports pundits and personalities are eagerly blending sports and politics, taking advantage, like other media, of a thriving market in partisanship.

For the most part, this class of sports commentators largely lives on the right side of the political spectrum, where they have become loud and influential voices reaching an audience that often tunes out traditional coverage of politics. (Analysts suggest audience demographics explain at least part of the rightward tilt of these shows. Sports talk listeners skew male, just like Republican voters.)

Among those jumping into the political pool is Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN fixture who makes frequent appearances on Fox News and hosts an independent podcast where he has complained about Mr. Biden’s handling of the economy and the war in Ukraine. “Trump is on the verge of getting re-elected, because when he was in office, there was a flourishing economy,” Mr. Smith said this week.

The trend may be a product of the rise of all sorts of commentary in sports media, as once-dominant highlight shows have been rendered largely obsolete by viral clips on the internet, said Travis Vogan, a University of Iowa professor who studies sports media.

“The culture of sports is pretty conservative,” Mr. Vogan said. “The way you cut through all the noise is by being provocative and dangling red meat in front of your audience.”

But Mr. Travis said he was not just trolling with outrage. He intends to influence the political conversation.

“Arguing over who is going to win the Super Bowl is an arbitrary fun thing. Nobody’s life changes based on who wins the Super Bowl. Who wins an election changes lives,” Mr. Travis said in an interview. “It matters to me to be able to speak about things that really matter.”

Here’s a cheat sheet to the new political sports talk:

In recent years, Barstool Sports, a digital media company, has become a destination for a young, male-dominated, libertarian counterculture known in some circles as “Barstool Conservatism.” Its most popular show, the sports talker “Pardon My Take,” regularly ranks among Apple’s top 20 podcasts.

Although overtly political content is not common at Barstool, the brand — whose founder, Dave Portnoy, is a vocal supporter of former President Donald J. Trump — frequently slams so-called cancel culture and popular progressive causes. A two-minute video in which Mr. Portnoy claimed that YouTube was censoring him, for example, has garnered more than 10 million views on X since being posted in November.

Mr. Portnoy last month announced a partnership with Rumble, the streaming platform that is popular with right-wing figures including Alex Jones and Roger Stone. News of the deal increased Rumble’s valuation by about $500 million.

Mr. Travis, a lawyer who got his start in sports by writing columns for CBS, founded his media company, OutKick, in 2011, and sold it to Fox Corporation in 2021. In its mission statement, the company defines its role as “exposing the destructive nature of ‘woke’ activism” and calls itself “the antidote to the mainstream sports media that often serves an elite, left-leaning minority instead of the American sports fan.”

Last year, OutKick saw a 65 percent increase in unique monthly visitors to its website compared with 2022, for an average of 7.2 million monthly viewers, according to Comscore, a media-measurement service. In addition to his daily, half-hour “OutKick” podcast, Mr. Travis co-hosts a three-hour talk radio show syndicated on more than 400 radio stations and running in the time slot once held by “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” Curt Schilling, the World Series-winning pitcher who was fired from ESPN for making anti-transgender statements, also has a show on OutKick.

Mr. Smith, best known for his politics-free daytime show, “First Take,” surprised fans in 2022 with an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and now pops up regularly on the network. In late September, he started his own podcast, separate from ESPN, where he said he could expand his “interest beyond the court or field of play.”

Perhaps no show has generated as many headlines lately as “The Pat McAfee Show,” a lunchtime gabfest featuring beefy men in neon tank tops. Mr. McAfee, a former punter in the National Football League, worked for Barstool for two years before ESPN picked up his current show.

Although Mr. McAfee focuses narrowly on sports, he gained attention for giving Aaron Rodgers, the New York Jets star quarterback, a friendly platform to share his anti-vaccine views.

ESPN did not reply to a request for comment on the political content on Mr. McAfee’s or Mr. Smith’s show.

Mr. McAfee has said his show is focused on sports. “I’m rather certain that nobody’s wanting to come hangout with us to hear us talk about politics,” he wrote on the social media site X.

There is no left-of-center analogue to these right-leaning sports shows. In Mr. Travis’s view, that is because mainstream sports talk already caters to Democrats.

He pointed to what he viewed as ESPN’s positive coverage of several major crossover cultural events, including Michael Sam’s becoming the first openly gay player to be drafted by the N.F.L. and the quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem.

Sports media veterans dispute this characterization, arguing that mainstream sports coverage and most major sports commentators abide by a “stick to sports” ethos.

“I always told my hosts, ‘Please do not talk politics,’” said Mark Chernoff, who for three decades directed programming at WFAN, the nation’s first all-sports radio network. “Whatever side you take, you’re going to immediately lose half your audience.”

Others said the criticism of mainstream coverage was largely coming from people who explicitly wanted their sports delivered with a political bent.

“There’s a crazy feeling in some circles that if coverage isn’t blatantly conservative, then it’s liberal,” said Jemele Hill, a former ESPN anchor who was suspended in 2017 for calling Mr. Trump a “white supremacist” on social media. She left ESPN the next year.

Ms. Hill said that “there is no liberal alternative” because media companies had proved unwilling to invest in left-of-center sports programming.

That is a missed opportunity for media investors, said Keith Olbermann, a former ESPN anchor who crossed over to liberal political punditry on MSNBC and now hosts the “Countdown” podcast. The market could sustain a sports show with a progressive viewpoint, he said.

“It’s part of the problem for the left,” Mr. Olbermann said. “We don’t go shopping for an audience.”

As far back as September, news that Taylor Swift, the billionaire pop star, was romantically attached to Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end, ruffled feathers on the right. But when the team made the Super Bowl, some turned their outrage up to 11, spreading the conspiracy theory that the couple’s relationship was an elaborate C.I.A. “psy-op” designed to secure Mr. Biden’s re-election.

Notably, this conspiracy theory has not been the purview of the sports pundits who are serious about politics. Mr. Travis called the Swift-induced meltdown an absurd distraction from the actual game, and Mr. Smith, who took his daughter to a Taylor Swift concert, told Sports Illustrated this week that he was “bothered” by all the attention the relationship had received.

Jason Whitlock, a fervent Trump supporter and commentator who once said the left supported “satanic” ideas, is not buying the Swift panic. Mr. Whitlock has worked for ESPN, Fox and OutKick, and now hosts a podcast on Blaze Media, the conservative platform founded by the former Fox News host Glenn Beck.

“We’ve got to come out of Taylor Swift derangement syndrome because that’s what’s going on,” he said.

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