Last Friday, one of the biggest questions in the insular, usually quite-boring world of sports media was finally answered when 21 regional sports networks, or RSNs, spanning from Los Angeles to Minnesota to New Orleans to Miami, were at last sold. The fate of these networks had been up in the air since the Justice Department ruling that, in the wake of Disney’s purchase of Fox’s entertainment assets, Disney/Fox had to sell them to someone else to avoid violating antitrust laws. Potential bidders on the RSNs — which own broadcast rights to 42 MLB, NBA and NHL teams — included Liberty Media, Major League Baseball and, intriguingly, a group led by Ice Cube.
Ice Cube’s plan to use the networks to target non-sports programming in off-game hours at “a young and diverse audience” sounded promising and new, actually, but these are cable rights fees: Nothing promising and new is allowed to work in the world of cable rights fees. Instead, the winning bid came from none other than our old friends at Sinclair Broadcasting.
We all know Sinclair Broadcasting, of course, from the company’s aggressive pursuit of regional television networks all across the country, which have forced some seriously right-wing air copy on poor local telecasters, most recently with the scalding take that tear gas should be used on migrants at the border. We’ve all seen the infamous Timothy Burke Deadspin video at this point. They’re the worst.
And now, Sinclair is going to be the owner of a dramatically high percentage of the stations where you watch your sports. It’s easy to sit back and shake your head at Sinclair’s propaganda when it’s in northeast Iowa or suburban Kansas City and you don’t really see it. It is quite another situation when you can’t watch your local baseball team without supporting the broadcasting giant. As the Washington Post paraphrased Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley, “If St. Louis Cardinals fans want to watch the Cardinals, or Detroit Tigers fans want to watch the Tigers, they now have to go Sinclair.” That goes for 40 other teams as well now.
This has led, inevitably, to fears that the act of watching a baseball game or an NBA game is going to be fraught with political action, that your favorite local broadcaster is going to throw it to commercial with, “That’s a 1-2-3 inning for the Reds, we head to the top of the seventh, and remember: Lock Her Up.” And Ripley, when pushed by the Post’s Ben Strauss, didn’t necessarily deny that his company plans on their two-track business plan of local news and sports working hand in hand: “First of all, I take umbrage that there’s anything wrong with our news reporting,” he told Strauss when asked about Sinclair’s “reporting” reputation. “But setting that aside, is it a chance to rebrand the company? I think in many ways that is true. But you’re not going to see any of these networks branded as Sinclair Sports. We’re not a front-facing brand and never will be.” One way to look at that is that Ripley really would like to keep Sinclair’s news and its sports separate. But another is to admit that even though the Sinclair name won’t be out front … it’ll still undeniably be Sinclair.
It seems unlikely that we’ll be hearing QAnon theories in the middle of your Cleveland Cavaliers games, and Ripley and Sinclair appear to be taking great pains to make it clear that this is business transaction, not a political one. But, of course, everything is political, even sports — especially sports. To actively strive to keep politics out of sports is itself a political act, something the “Stick to Sports” crowd has never entirely accepted or even understood. It’s impossible to go to a sporting event, just as it’s impossible to go to any event, and not make some sort of political statement, from the purchasing of a ticket in a publicly financed stadium, to whether or not you stand for the national anthem, to what mode of transportation you’re taking home. To pretend that politics is independent of sports — particularly in a world where the Ricketts family owns the Cubs, or the President of the United States is close friends with the guy whose team is playing in the Super Bowl and watching the game with the owner of the spa that would unwittingly take the team’s owner down — is to be willfully blind, to implicitly endorse the existing power structure. Simply by watching at all, you’re supporting some bad guys. This does not necessarily make you a bad guy. But acting as if you are not in some small way a part of the problem is lying to yourself. Acting as if sports and politics are separate is a useful illusion, a convenient self-deceit that Sinclair will happily cash in on. And that’s if they even keep their word and don’t make their sports broadcasters parrot the company’s political lines the way they make their newscasters do.
But this still begs the question: Does sports even need a conservative voice? Isn’t it already one? After all, most of these networks have had the word “Fox” in their name for decades already. (And they’ve been promoting Fox Sports 1’s reactionary, conservative commentators for years too.) The culture of sports is already so conservative — at least in its power structures — that Sinclair probably won’t need to touch a thing. Last month, a Reds broadcaster explained away a widely panned contract extension signed by Braves infielder Ozzie Albies by saying, that, because Albies is from Curacao, “he may not know the difference between $35 million and $85 million.” (Albies is smart enough to speak four languages; the broadcaster later apologized.) That’s the sort of political analysis that, frankly, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sinclair newscast, and it’s already part of the Fox Sports Ohio package. Sinclair gets that without even having to ask.
In the opening minutes of this year’s NFL Draft, commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL brass escorted the top prospects — the young men about to have their childhood dreams come true — to the stage, where they stood there, proud, nervous, the next generation of football stars, the faces of the NFL for the next decade. Guess what happened next? The NFL Draft — which, I remind you, is not in fact a sporting event but actually just four days of reading names off an Excel spreadsheet — commenced with the singing of the national anthem. The future of the NFL, these players experiencing their final minutes outside the looming shadow of The Shield, stood there on a platform with the world watching. You better be damn sure they put their hands over their hearts and stood at attention. Does that sound like something you’d see on Sinclair? Or Fox Sports? It was of course on ESPN, a network that seemed to briefly flirt with political stances from its commentators before hastily shying away once the President and his followers started firing tweets its way.
New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said, within months of taking the job, that “I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false. I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.” Of course, the national anthem was a political story. The company’s new deal with the XFL and Vince McMahon — the biggest donor to the Trump Foundation, someone who said players who don’t stand for the anthem will be banned from the league and, of course, the husband of Trump’s former Small Business Administration head and current Trump 2020 PAC chair — is a political story. Literally every story ESPN covers, every game it airs, is a political story. Its refusal to admit this, and that it has adjusted its coverage accordingly, is a direct response to Trump, and the “Stick To Sports” mentality. The power structure of sports bends conservative, inexorably, eternally.
So you really think Sinclair is going to stick out in this particular world? Sinclair is as logical a player on this field as there could be … certainly more logical than poor Ice Cube. Sinclair is already such a part of professional sports’ mentality that having them own large swaths of the sports television landscape is something few will even notice. Ripley’s right: They don’t need to be front-facing. They’re already there.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at email@example.com.