ESPN layoffs signal for worse times ahead: While We’re Waiting

To Jane McManus, the bylines were closure. She had spent months of her time reporting out a pair of stories—one on Ray and Janay Rice three years later; the other on Christian McCaffrey and the NFL’s racial divide. Both pieces were hard-hitting, investigative stories that were bigger than a highlight dunk or late-round draft pick. Last Wednesday, when she would receive word that her job with ESPN was no longer, her only question was whether or not her recently filed pieces would still run.

McManus was one of a host of reporters to be told that they were no longer employees of the country’s most watched and read sports network. The issue, of course, is that while ESPN is still the 800-pound gorilla in the zoo that encompasses sports media, those eyes are steadily declining. The rhetoric that ESPN is “losing money” couldn’t be further from the truth—they’re making a ton of money, just a bit less than they had been used to. As consumers change the way they absorb their sports, ESPN in turn decided that the best course of action, at least in the short term, was to change the way they structured their delivery.

While it was a host of behind-the-scenes production folks to lose their jobs during the last round of cuts, the ones that went down last week seemed much larger as we could all put faces with the names. Joining McManus were long-time NBA reporters Marc Stein, Chad Ford, and Ethan Sherwood Strauss; NBA editor and occasional author Henry Abbott; long-time Ohio State hater Mark May; college basketball mainstay Andy Katz; athletes turned analysts Trent Dilfer, Dallas Braden, and Raul Ibanez; SportsCenter host and Indians fan Jay Crawford; Ryen Russillo’s co-host Danny Kannell; and a litany of others. I never thought we’d see the day where Ed Werder would no longer report on all things Dallas Cowboys or Jayson Stark would no longer be writing about baseball on ESPN’s pages, but they’re officially here and its cold water in the face levels of reality: More and more dream jobs are ending in the form of nightmares, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. Journalism, while eternally a virtue, appears to be a trade that is becoming devalued by the minute.

While the MAGA hat wearers will try to cast these layoffs as comeuppance for lending a voice to women, minorities, homosexuals, and transgender individuals, the facts are that cable subscription rates have been in a steady decline for several years. As costs increase and cable and dish companies attempt to pass these on to consumers, the consumer wised up and decided to turn to cheaper alternatives. Much like what happened to newspapers, sports fans utilized YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to get highlights instantly, effectively pulling the carpet out from the feet of SportsCenter, all while the network was tying money up in rights deals for the Pac-12 and spending a ton to broadcast Monday Night Football.1 They also felt invincible to Netflix. Ask Blockbuster Video how that ends. With subscriber rates north of 110 million in 2011, ESPN saw this number plummet to 89 million this past November.

In turn, rather than breaking their own news or diving deep into investigative pieces, it appears ESPN is willing to go forward with a repackaging others’ work, occasionally “confirming” it on their own, and then providing a handful of opinions on said news. For years, ESPN has freelanced out coverage of visiting teams when it felt the economics were such that it made little sense to fly someone in from Los Angeles if a kid from Cleveland was willing to cover the Clippers. Same for a two-day series with the White Sox or Yankees. Fast forward to 2017 and they cover games remotely, making it sound as if the bodies are in the booth, but it’s actually two or three individuals with headsets on in location that doesn’t involve travel and accommodations. Snowball all of this to early 2017 and you have a media company laying off journalists and reporters who range from middle-of-the-night news breakers to those who can write with the prose of a poet.

When you’re attempting to appease holders of Disney stock and the analysts who cover it, these types of items make for great conference call fodder—all while the University of Texas keeps cashing checks to the tune of $295 million over 20 years in a deal that was consummated during those high times of 2011. A similar thing happened in 2008 when banks had been tying up a ton of money in securities that were not worth as much as assumed, causing countless people to lose their jobs, ultimately throwing the domestic economy into a year-long tailspin.

In a way, we’re lucky this is just sports. Housing values are not about to plummet across the country due to one company’s misreading of it’s environment. In another way, landscapes change in every industry, and this shows how much can change in the blink of a six-year span. I’m a firm believer that many of the folks who were let go this past week will land elsewhere. I’m also a believer that many of them will be paid a fraction of what they were making with ESPN. And as a staunch defender of journalism, its the devaluation of this all that is the most startling as it will be the toughest course to reverse—if it even reverses at all.2

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  1. Their deal with the NFL costs $1.9 billion per year; MLB gets $700 million. []
  2. I will add that the amount of individuals reveling in these layoffs last week was startling, disturbing, and disgusting. This is way beyond cheering for your team to win. Just because you know who these individuals are doesn’t mean you get to root against them if you’re some anti-media loon. I urge everyone to think long and hard before you celebrate someone you don’t know losing their job for any reason let alone due to mistakes made by their respective employers. []
  3. “Doing” articles is the new “write a blog.” []