For a long time, ESPN was the most powerful entity in sports broadcasting.
The cable network was the first to deliver sports news to viewers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its flagship show, “SportsCenter,” was the main place to get scores and watch the day’s highlights, in the process turning anchors such as Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Stuart Scott into household names.
But the network’s fortunes have been heading south for a while — and on Wednesday, the extent of its collapse became all the clearer.
On a day analysts were calling a “bloodbath” at the network, ESPN laid off about 100 employees, many of them familiar on-air television and radio personalities. Among the most recognizable was Ed Werder, a National Football League reporter with a 17-year tenure at the network. The move came just one day before the annual NFL Draft.
Analysts attributed the massive downsizing to several factors, including the trend of cord-cutting among TV viewers, the ease of following sports through readily available technology, and even politics.
But the bottom line is money. ESPN has been losing viewers in droves and has become a drain on its parent company, Disney, for the past few years. In the most recent quarter, Disney’s cable networks reported “an 11 percent [revenue] drop from the same period a year ago, with ESPN the reason for the entire decline,” as The New York Times reported.
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Clay Travis of the sports website Outkick the Coverage summarized the situation well on Wednesday, writing, “ESPN spent way too much on sports rights just as its cable and satellite subscriptions began to collapse. On track for $8 billion in programming costs in 2017, ESPN will rack up its 15 millionth lost subscriber since 2011.”
Travis continued: “Every single day so far in 2017, over 10,000 people have left ESPN. The numbers are astonishing, and the collapse is rapid. All those lost subscribers add up to big money — that’s over $1.3 billion a year in money that comes off ESPN’s books every year. And ESPN is on the hook for billions and billions a year for all the years ahead.”
The effect of Wednesday’s layoffs will be most obvious to viewers, since on-air talent is affected, but overall quality at the network has suffered, too, due to other cost-cutting moves in recent years. In October 2015, ESPN laid off more than 300 employees, many of whom were not on-camera personalities.
Twitter was exploding on Wednesday with opinions and analyses, with many tweeters claiming politics has played a key role in ESPN’s ratings declines and thus its bottom line. The network has come under fire from conservatives in recent years for what they view as a slide toward left-wing politics and for its aggressive push of ideology over straightforward sports reporting.
A flashpoint for these concerns was when Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPY Awards. The choice was criticized by a variety of sports journalists, including Bob Costas, who’s hardly a conservative pundit.
“It strikes me [as] a crass exploitation play, a tabloid play. In the broad world of sports — and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner — I am pretty sure they could have found someone who was much closer to actively [being] involved in sports who would have been deserving of what that award represents,” said Costas on “The Dan Patrick Show.”
On that same point, Travis added, “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, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football. ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
“Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk.”
Another big story out of Wednesday’s layoffs is the impression that ESPN, which has provided dramatically diminishing airtime and resources to the National Hockey League coverage over recent years, is all but giving up on NHL fans. The network let go of NHL columnist Scott Burnside and NHL reporters Pierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald. That would be a big change at any time — but it’s especially distressing in the middle of the NHL playoffs. (The second round begins Wednesday night.)
It’s another way in which critics will argue that the network’s business interests conflict with its journalistic decisions. ESPN has huge multi-billion deals with the NFL, the NBA, and the college-football playoffs; it has no such association with the NHL.
While many of the on-air personalities who were axed Wednesday are not well-known outside ESPN, they’ll be familiar to viewers who follow the specific sports they covered.
Hannah Storm, who has been a popular national sports journalist for more than 25 years, will reportedly have her role “significantly reduced” on the network, along with colleagues Karl Ravech and Ryen Russillo. Danny Kanell, who had been co-hosting a daily ESPN radio show with Russillo, also was laid off Wednesday, along with Jay Crawford (creator of the well known “Cold Pizza,” which became “First Take”) and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, who covered the NFL.
Travis minced no words in his view of ESPN’s future: “From 1979 to 2011, ESPN was part of the greatest business in the history of media. But from 2011 on we’re going to witness the biggest media collapse since AOL. It’s creative destruction writ large, and ESPN is a dead company walking.”