Wednesday, April 26, 2017

ESPN layoffs sad, structural change in the biz

Today was a sad day for those of us Gen X types that were huge sports fans in our younger days, and it’s a sign of how different things are today. Approximately 100 staffers at ESPN lost their jobs today, and most of them were on-air personnel and reporters. Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated has been updating the list of casualties throughout the day, and it is filled with familiar names.
Over the course of the day on Wednesday, a number of staffers announced via social media that they had been let go. Those included the noted NFL information broker Ed Werder; longtime columnist Johnette Howard; espnW staffer Jane McManus; college football and ESPN Radio analyst Danny Kannel; NHL reporters Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald and a mass of college sports reporters including C.L. Brown, Eamonn Brennan‏, Jeremy Crabtree, Brett McMurphy, Max Olson, Dana O’Neil, Jesse Temple, Derek Tyson, Austin Ward, Ted Miller, David Ching and Brian Bennett. MLB reporter Doug Padilla, ESPN Dallas Columnist Jean-Jacques Taylor, soccer reporter Mike Goodman, ESPNU anchor Brendan Fitzgerald, NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford, NBA writer Ethan Strauss, Justin Verrier​ and Calvin Watkins, NFL reporter Ashley Fox and longtime MLB reporter Jayson Stark also tweeted they were being let go.

ESPN issued two statements early on Wednesday, including one from President John Skipper and a second from his deputies.

“A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions,” Skipper said, in a statement. “Our content strategy—primarily illustrated in recent months by melding distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with our biggest sub-brand—still needs to go further, faster…and as always, must be efficient and nimble. 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. We will implement changes in our talent lineup this week. A limited number of other positions will also be affected and a handful of new jobs will be posted to fill various needs.”
As Skipper alludes to, a lot of the moves go along with an updated ESPN strategy to emphasize more of its digital platforms over having a large number of on-the-ground reporters that gather content for its website and shows like SportsCenter. In addition, online services like Hulu or Sling TV has allowed more people to “cut the cord” on cable while still getting ESPN content, and even if you have cable, you can DVR anything and watch a show at your leisure.

Unfortunately, these ESPN layoffs are a natural result to this structural change in the sports journalism industry, especially on television. It’s noteworthy that SportsCenter has basically turned away from being a highlight show in recent years, and instead has become a host-centered show with various long-form segments and not as much on the day’s games and player moves. Cork Gaines at Business Insider hearkened back to words from last year, when two former cornerstones at ESPN- writer/NBA guy Bill Simmons and former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann – had a conversation on Simmons’ podcast about how the media world had changed.

Olbermann noted that ESPN’s non-game programming strategy had become obsolete by the mid-2010s, because people get their sports news and highlights in a different way than when me and my college buddies were gathered around the Witte Hall dorm den to watch Keith every night in college.
"[Former ESPN Executive Editor] John Walsh said — I think this was 1993 — 'You know, we have done all sorts of marketing and research, and no matter what happens to ESPN, as long as we have 'SportsCenter' and it is a success, we will be dominant in this field no matter what competition arises. Our research indicates that our fans will stick with us if we lose the NFL contract, and they will stay with us if we lose this personality. As long as we have 'SportsCenter' and it is accurate and well done, we will be dominant in this field.' And it's not true anymore because it can't be the centerpiece of the operations for the reasons we already alluded to.

"But they clearly — and I think you would agree with me — they don't know that. And all attempts to change it are predicated on the idea that it can be what it was two years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago when Dan [Patrick] and I did it. And it can't."
That rings true. Name the last time you said “I gotta set aside time at 10pm to watch SportsCenter to find out what happened in this game!” You don’t need to. You can just click on your favorite website or go through your Twitter feed, and you will see the results and see the highlights that show how it happened. You don’t need SportsCenter for the postgame interviews, because that’s online as well, and you can read analysis from across the country on any number of websites and social media sites.

Of course, that doesn’t mean ESPN hasn’t made some self-inflicted damage along the way to cause some of the bloat they feel a need to get a rid of. This Tweet summed up my sideways glance at today’s news, especially as I realized several of the layoffs were veterans done for cost reasons.

Seems like something they really don’t need to spend the money on that, regardless of whether or not they’re doing more feature pieces vs game reporting as part of the change in ESPN's emphasis (and I like Marty Smith a lot, by the way- I think he’s hilarious and good at what he does). Somehow Steven A. Smith and Max Kellerman still have their jobs and shows through all of this, which also seems head-shakingly symptomatic of what Skipper and the suits think is what grabs ratings for "sports programming" in 2017.

The other thing that strikes me as odd with ESPN’s mass firings is the timing of it- the day before the NFL Draft. ESPN has had the Draft for almost all of the 38 years ESPN has been on TV, and it’s one of those events where it makes a lot of sense to have reporters at the various team offices to get inside info on possible trades, draft strategy, and interviews with the coaches/GM.

I don’t get why you get rid of a lot of college football and NFL people one day before you’re going to have a weekend full of draft coverage. Have mass firings on May 1, after the draft is over? I get that. But I guess that means I have yet another reason to watch NFL Network starting on Thursday (they’re better at the Draft anyway).

The suddenness of ESPN’s move tells me that there might be something else afoot. Wall Street media has been consistently discussing ESPN owner Disney, and the Worldwide Leader’s struggles and loss of subscribers, and Disney announces its next quarterly earnings in 2 weeks. You think maybe this is a pre-emptive move to deal with bad earnings news and keep investors happy?

Regardless of the reason, the bloodletting at ESPN is somewhat of a sign of the times, where we have more ability than ever to get information, but it hurts the ability of any one place to give you information (look at print media’s massive struggles over the last 25 years). And it’s sad to see a lot of familiar faces leave a network that I still watch, and it makes me wonder what platforms and networks I will see them pop up on in the coming months. Yes, ESPN's influence is much smaller than it was 20 years ago, but it's still generally the network I turn to for "general sports" programming, and like most TV shows, you grow a small level of attachment to those people. Interestingly, as I finish this Michael Smith and Jemele Hill have spent the first 15 minutes of their 5pm SportsCenter show to talk openly about the layoffs. In addition to telling viewers that it's difficult to deal with, because these are co-workers and colleagues (Smith just said "This has not made our team better").

I will disagree with one take Smith is having, because he's comparing the job reductions and public reaction to speculation/reaction to coaches getting fired. ESPN did not FIRE people today, which is something done for unacceptable performance or actions. ESPN did LAYOFFS today, which have to do with cold-hearted business decisions and often are affected by structural changes in consumer tastes.

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