The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and the right loved Clay Travis. The fight over college football sealed their bond.

Clay Travis, seen here at 2019 Politicon at Music City Center, told the Post that his website, Outkick, which runs weekly presidential polling updates, doesn't cover politics. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

For fans of college football, hope came Wednesday in the form of a presidential tweet.

“Had a very productive conversation with Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, about immediately starting up Big Ten football," President Trump tweeted. "On the one yard line!”

Though the fate of Big Ten football remains unclear, the tweet offered a momentary boost to fans, whose fall suddenly looked less desolate, and to Trump, for whom empty college football stadiums could signal to some swing-state voters his failure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

But it was perhaps an even bigger moment for Clay Travis, who reportedly brokered the phone call, completing his only-in-2020 transformation from abrasive sports blogger to influential conservative sports radio host to apparent Trump campaign surrogate.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 college football season is still pressing on. Here's where we are. (Video: The Washington Post)

For years, Travis, who also hosts a gambling show on Fox Sports and runs a website called Outkick, has been building a brand partly rooted in attacking progressive athletes and accusing ESPN of liberal bias. But this summer, as the pandemic, protests over racial injustice and the approaching election collided with the return of sports, Travis’s nascent mini-media empire has morphed into the go-to platform for Republicans hoping to win over sports fans.

He’s done it with the help of a new business partner, the former Fox Sports personality Jason Whitlock, whose work, like Travis’s, shares political DNA with Trump’s: Sports as red meat in the culture wars, racial grievances, media-bashing.

Whitlock has churned out columns suggesting that George Floyd’s killing was a “race hoax used to divide us.” Travis has likened striking NBA players to George Costanza, the Seinfeld character who quit his job and then returned to it. Lately, Travis has also mixed in Trump’s dismissal of science, telling people to “chill out" about the novel coronavirus and selling T-shirts making fun of mask-wearers.

Their takes have not gone unnoticed by the right. Both have appeared on the Fox News shows of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. And a parade of conservative politicians and operatives — including U.S. senators, governors, White House aides and even Trump himself — have appeared on Travis’s show, to decry the NBA’s stance on China and cheerlead for the return of sports.

“They reach out quite a bit,” he said of the White House press office. “We have a lot of listeners in the White House.”

Nothing, though, has solidified Travis’s symbiosis with the GOP like college football, the subject that lured multiple Trumps onto Travis’s show.

"Kids, they get it and they have the sniffles. It’s almost none who have a serious problem with it,” Trump said on Travis’s radio show, referring to covid-19, a few weeks ago. “I think football is making a tragic mistake.”

A few days later, it was Donald Trump Jr.'s turn. “I can’t tell if some of this stuff is politically motivated because not going back to normalcy allows you to instill some fear that can be used as political leverage,” he said. “Let them play, man.”

The motivation is clear for politicos, said Republican strategist Jim Hobart, given Travis’s audience of red-state SEC fans.

“These sports issues can be a very effective base motivator," he explained. “They can drive donor interest, especially small-donor interest, and the reason they are going on with Clay is that he reaches the same audience that they are trying to reach.”

For Travis, the calculation may be riskier. After spending years lambasting the politicization of sports and arguing about the business downsides of activism, his own politics may be impacting his long-term position in sports media. At least one advertiser has left his radio show over his politics; a co-worker has publicly criticized him; and one Fox Sports employee said they were told directly that company executives have been dismayed by his misleading coronavirus commentary.

Travis, though, is undeterred. He predicted Outkick will be a $100 million company in 2021. Even if it isn’t, his future as a conservative pundit appears more secure by the day.

“There’s a knife fight for the 20 percent of sports fans that I would say are woke or are left-wing," he told The Washington Post. "I think people are cutting each other left and right, battling to be the media company that serves that left-wing component.”

The summer of Outkick

On July 10, with the NBA’s season set to resume, the office of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent out a news release. Why, it asked, would the NBA promote social justice on players’ jerseys but not allow them to support law enforcement or pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong?

One of the press release’s recipients, star ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, responded bluntly: “F--- You.”

Hawley tweeted a picture of the email and tagged one media outlet he thought might help spread word of Wojnarowski’s response: Travis’s Outkick. Hawley then taped three separate interviews with Travis and Whitlock, while another Outkick reporter broke the news that Wojnarowski was suspended by ESPN.

Sports have been a consistent target of Republicans since 2016, when Colin Kaepernick’s protest began and was viciously attacked by Trump (and Travis). In Outkick, Hawley saw the chance to take this message to die-hard sports fans, a potentially different group than he’d find on Fox News.

“It’s an audience of folks that are maybe not political junkies, they’re probably not watching ‘Meet the Press',” Hawley said in an interview.

But the coronavirus added a new dimension to the political tug of war for sports fans — especially once football season appeared in jeopardy. Rather than an argument over systematic racism, the return of sports could be framed as a health policy question: Was it safe to play or not?

Travis took a stand from the beginning. After Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) barred fans from the first round of the NCAA tournament in March, Travis tweeted, “people have lost their minds over the coronavirus.” He predicted the death toll from the virus would be in the hundreds and said it was no more dangerous than the flu.

He was wrong. (He blamed bad data coming out of China.) But it didn’t stop people from listening and appreciating his campaign for sports. According to iHeart, which syndicates the show, it set records for downloads every month from March through August, including a jump of a million from July to August.

“The way that he has covered sports in the era of covid has been really bold and really fresh,” Hawley said.

‘Strike’? ‘Boycott’? When athletes stopped playing, the arguments over wording began.

Trump officials were listening, too. In April, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh delivered a message to Travis’s listeners: “Country has got to get back to business. We had the strongest economy the world had ever seen. It was artificially interrupted.”

On baseball’s Opening Day — amid the racial reckoning that followed Floyd’s killing — Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York mayor and Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House’s sports liaison, told Travis: “As we see our American history being questioned, to see baseball, America’s pastime, being back out there. I think that’s going to be a big boost to the psyche of all Americans.”

“As Clay appealed to his audience by throwing out MAGA red meat, the Trump staff sees that,” said Tim Miller, a former adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush and a vocal Trump critic. “And they are desperate for outlets to feed material to."

Enter college football, whose fans skew conservative but whose unpaid players, who are mostly Black, have agitated for more power amid the pandemic. When Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences postponed their fall football seasons this summer, Trump’s campaign leaped to capitalize, sending out a fundraising appeal: “The Radical Left is trying to CANCEL college football.” Then it turned to Travis, sending Trump and Trump Jr. to advocate for the sport’s return. Two Trump allies, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), also talked to Travis about their work to get the sports played.

But then Trump’s Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden, began airing ads of empty college football stadiums across the Midwest. The White House huddled, looking for help to change the narrative. And it turned back to Travis, their relationship now blossoming beyond a friendly media partnership. According to Sports Business Journal, Travis sat in on strategy meetings with the White House and helped arrange the phone call between Trump and the Big Ten commissioner Warren.

The Big Ten called the conversation “productive.” Travis declined to comment on the report. “I wasn’t the source,” he said, then asked: "How is it political to want sports to come back?”

Trump speaks with Big Ten commissioner, pushes conference to play football this fall

Miller, the former Jeb Bush staffer, once admired the way Travis, a self-described “radical moderate” who says he twice voted for President Barack Obama, recognized the divide between the politics of sports fans and sports media. But this summer, Miller said, has proven that Travis has transformed into something else entirely.

“Going in on the NBA for showing its a-- on China is reasonable,” said Miller, who also chronicled Travis’s Coronavirus missteps this summer. “But I refuse to believe that Clay doesn’t have pretty serious disagreements with Donald Trump and you never hear him talk about that. That’s how you go from culturally conservative sports talk into a propagandist for the MAGAs.”

Travis said: “If I agree with something, then I’m happy to amplify it.”

Another voice

Travis, 41, founded his site, then called Outkick the Coverage, as an SEC blog nine years ago. After serving essentially as its only voice and writer, he began to staff up in May, and now has seven full-time writers. Outkick has plans to launch a podcast network next, through iHeart.

Whitlock joined in June, parting ways with Fox Sports and investing as an equity partner in Outkick. According to a person with direct knowledge of the agreement, Whitlock paid $500,000 for the stake in the company. (Travis denied the amount. Whitlock declined to be interviewed by phone for this story, insisting on answering questions by email. He did not respond to a question about the size of his investment.)

Whitlock, like Travis, has had his own evolution. Five years ago, he was tasked with building ESPN’s The Undefeated, a site designed to cover the intersection of race and sports. After Deadspin exhaustively reported on his clashes with staffers, he landed at Fox Sports, where he devoted himself to speaking out against athlete activism and the ills of social media.

Of Outkick, he said in an email: “I was attracted to the business opportunity and the freedom to say exactly what I think without worrying about some scared executive.”

Together, he and Travis are following the footsteps of other right-wing media entrepreneurs, said Reece Peck, a professor at the College of Staten Island, who studies the way conservative media intersects with popular culture. Rupert Murdoch, he said, has long understood the importance of sports in culture, having the foresight to buy NFL rights in the early 1990s. The Murdoch-owned New York Post has also married extensive sports coverage with its conservative political agenda.

Peck also pointed to Breitbart, the website once run by former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, which writes often about Kaepernick and LeBron James’s activism — what Peck calls “anti-elitist narratives mixed with racial politics.”

“I think a site like [Outkick] works in terms of media branding and commercial branding,” Peck said.

Led by Chris Webber and Kenny Smith, ‘Inside the NBA’ went from pregame show to protest in real time

But in becoming so entangled with Trump, Travis may be threatening his appeal inside mainstream sports media. In May, he tweeted that most people killed by police are not Black, without noting that Black people are disproportionately killed by police. That same day, Rachel Bonnetta, a co-host of his show on Fox Sports, tweeted that she’s embarrassed to be associated with his online takes.

Another Fox Sports employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company business, said they were told directly that executives have been dismayed by his coronavirus commentary. (Fox Sports, which likes to note Travis is not technically their employee, declined to comment.)

Advertisers, including AutoZone, have abandoned his radio show, too. According to a person with knowledge of the ad sales, Travis’s show has fewer advertisers than other Fox Sports branded radio shows currently and is by far the hardest radio show to sell in Fox’s lineup. (An executive at iHeart said Travis’s sponsors are commensurate with his morning time slot.)

It’s unclear how this summer’s additions — Whitlock and a direct line to the White House — are affecting Outkick’s traffic so far. Travis predicted millions of visitors this summer, but in June, when Whitlock arrived in the middle of the month, the site had just 255,000 unique visitors, according to ComScore. Another traffic analytics firm, Similar Web, found the site had around 1 million visitors in July. Outkick’s CEO said in an interview that the numbers were low; the site uses Google analytics internally and it received millions of visitors in August.

Regardless, Travis insisted that politics won’t get in Outkick’s way. Because, he claimed, Outkick doesn’t do politics.

“I don’t see anything that is immediately political,” he said one day in August, scrolling through the day’s headlines. Had he scrolled a little further he would have found that week’s “Outkick Election Pollwatch” and a story headlined, “President Donald Trump on Joe Biden’s VP Options.” Both stories quoted only one person, Trump, from an interview he gave to Travis.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly used the word “fans” in quoting Travis as saying: “I’m in regular touch with the White House press office. I have a lot of fans in the White House.” The quote should have read: “They reach out quite a bit,” he said of the White House press office. “We have a lot of listeners in the White House.”

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