ESPN’s layoff of approximately 100 employees Wednesday is not the multiplatform sports giant’s largest personnel purge in recent years.
In October 2015, the network dismissed more than 300 of its estimated 8,000 employees, its first significant staff reduction in response to the mushrooming fiscal effects of consumer cord-cutting on cable television networks.
But the latest news is far more disconcerting in regard to ESPN’s current and future states, even if the layoffs had been long-expected. While the layoffs in 2015 primarily affected behind-the-scenes talent, numerous familiar and accomplished on-air personalities lost their jobs this time.
They include baseball reporter Jayson Stark, NFL reporter Ed Werder, NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, columnist Johnette Howard, radio host Danny Kanell, ESPNU host Brendan Fitzgerald, and hockey reporters Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside, and Joe McDonald.
Per Variety, other high-profile ESPN talent such as Hannah Storm, Karl Ravech, and Ryen Russillo, will have their roles significantly reduced.
The layoffs offer a vague signal of ESPN’s direction — its hockey and college sports coverage teams in particular took a massive hit. ESPN management has acknowledged it is emphasizing personality-driven studio programming, including “SportsCenter,” while increasing its social media presence.
“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,” said ESPN’s president, John Skipper, said in a statement to employees on Wednesday.
ESPN’s desperation to shake up the status quo stems from a double-edged dilemma: The network has paid billions of dollars for the broadcast rights to live NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball games (among other sports) in recent years. The decision to do so makes sense fundamentally — compelling live sports remain a consistent highly rated draw on cable networks, and ESPN’s main advantage, other than familiarity, over upstarts such as Fox Sports 1.
But ESPN’s massive live rights deals — including a 10-year, $15.2 billion deal with the NFL and a nine-year, $12 billion deal with the NBA — are juxtaposed with significant declines in revenue due to the decline of cable television subscriptions. ESPN, which costs each cable subscriber more than $9 per month when fees for ESPN2, ESPNU, and the SEC Network are included, has lost an estimated 12 million subscribers in the past six years, according to Business Insider.
“ESPN was wrapped in Teflon for many years, but big payouts for rights fees plus significant losses in their subscriber base were like punches to the gut and head, and now the company is trying to make sure they are strong enough to fight in the future,” James Andrew Miller, who wrote a book on the history of ESPN, told the New York Times Wednesday. “They’ve decided one way to do this is to change their approach to content and rely more heavily on digital; this has enabled them to let go of a big chunk of their talent base.”
The news of who was affected by the layoffs trickled out throughout Wednesday on social media, offering a strange irony: For some of the longtime reporters, their last scoops for ESPN were in regard to their own status.
Tweeted Stark, the upbeat and enthusiastic longtime baseball writer who had a knack for finding quirky stories and statistics: “For 17 yrs I’ve had a dream job covering baseball for ESPN. Today is my last day. Thanks to all the great people at ESPN, MLB & all of you!”
Others could not mask the disappointment: “Poured my heart and soul into ESPN for last 8 years,’’ tweeted Kanell, who hosted a radio show with Russillo. “Moved my wife and 3 kids to CT to go ‘all in’ 5 years ago. Bummed it ended in 3 minutes.”