In a brutal day for sports media, ESPN announced dozens of staff cuts on Wednesday including highly visible names like NFL reporter Ed Werder and radio host Danny Kanell. The moves come as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” struggles to adapt to falling subscription revenue, skyrocketing fees for live events, and shifts in the way media is consumed.
“A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions.” ESPN President John Skipper wrote in a note to employees. Those decisions, according to an early-morning tweet from Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch include cutting close to 100 staffers, more than had been previously thought.
ESPN has long been the crown jewel of the cable landscape. Its programming fetches an industry-best $7.21 a month from each of its subscribers, according to Bloomberg. But the network has been hemorrhaging subscribers in recent years, even as it has inked exorbitant broadcast-rights deals with the NBA, NFL, and NCAA.
The problems for ESPN are largely connected to the changing habits of consumers. As more viewers cut the cable cord, ESPN has fallen short of revenue expectations, and its percentage contribution to parent-company Disney’s profits has fallen each year since 2011. Acknowledging that shift from consumers, Skipper writes, “Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands.”
Critics have tied the network’s declining subscriber base to a perceived embrace of liberal politics by those on air and in decision-making roles. In February, Breitbart News directly attributed audience losses to ESPN’s “political left turn.”
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Last December, Public Editor Jim Brady published a long piece addressing the stick-to-sports criticisms, writing “the separation of sports and politics has always been a fantasy.” Brady argued that ESPN had become a place where those with conservative views might feel out of place, and urged network executives to “better balance” conversations that touched on politics.
Longtime ESPN critic Clay Travis argues that ESPN’s leftward lurch contributed to its current problems: “Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero,” Travis wrote in his piece covering Wednesday’s layoffs. “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social–media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
While this sort of simplistic narrative is red meat for sports-radio shows and fiery blog posts, the reality is more mundane, and harder to fix.
Layoffs at ESPN have nothing to do with the politics of the on-air staff and everything to do with structural problems in the cable biz.
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) April 26, 2017
ESPN’s subscriber base has shrunk by more than 10 million since 2011, even as broadcasting costs for major sports leagues have skyrocketed. SportsCenter, the network’s flagship program, has become less essential as fans access instant results and highlights from mobile devices and social media. ESPN has responded by rebranding SportsCenter around major personalities, but the decline in relevance of recap shows and commentary vehicles has contributed to a network arms race over live event rights that has driven costs into the stratosphere.
The cuts today follow a purge of about 300 employees in October 2015, though most of those layoffs hit off-camera staffers. “The demand for sports remains undiminished,” Skipper said at the time, “though the landscape we operate in has never been more complex.” That landscape has only grown more complex in the 18 months since, and ESPN is responding by focusing on digital content.
Absent among the cuts made public so far are some of the network’s biggest names in investigative reporting. The stated commitment to the two programs that are ESPN’s journalistic conscience is a silver lining. In a companion piece to Skipper’s morning missive, a group of ESPN executives wrote, “our focus continues to be providing high-quality, distinctive content at any minute of the day on any screen.” Of specific interest to those who value the network’s journalistic efforts, the note stated, “In May, two of our biggest journalism brands—Outside the Lines and E:60—will relaunch with an emphasis on increased collaboration and a larger presence digitally, socially and across all our screens.”
Make no mistake, today's announcement of layoffs at @espn speak directly to significant changes in what they do and how they do it.
— jamesmiller (@JimMiller) April 26, 2017
In many ways, ESPN’s troubles are similar to those faced by newspapers over the past decade. With consumers turning away from traditional delivery vehicles of print and television, these waves of layoffs have become an unpleasant, if regular, feature of the business. It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of ESPN’s place in the sports-media field. Today’s cuts signal an acknowledgement that, even for the industry’s giants, no one is immune from the changing dynamics of media consumption.
Additional points about the layoffs:
- Ed Werder, a well-known NFL reporter and 17-year network veteran, was one of the first to announce he had been laid off.
- Jim Miller, who literally wrote the book on ESPN, has updates on his Twitter timeline.
- Deadspin has a running list of those who have announced that they have been laid off.
- Based on the cuts made public, ESPN appears to be scaling back its hockey coverage. The NHL consistently draws the lowest ratings of the four major sports leagues, and is also the only league without an ESPN television contract. NHL reporters Scott Burnside, Joe McDonald, and Pierre LeBrun all announce that they have been let go.
Housecleaning almost complete. ESPN has just about abandoned hockey. https://t.co/WZv7dyP2CB
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 26, 2017