ESPN is poised to slash an estimated $80 million in salaries and other costs in coming weeks, sources tell Sporting News.
The third round of layoffs in two years at the Disney-owned sports network is expected to come down after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. Sporting News broke the news that ESPN planned to lay off up to 60 people in late November and early December. Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated followed up with a report that said 100 positions could be impacted. ESPN declined to comment Monday.
Previously, ESPN laid off 100 mostly on-air anchors/reporters/hosts this April, including well-known names such as John Clayton, Trent Dilfer and Brit McHenry. In October 2015, the company laid off 300 staffers, including well-respected executives such as Gus Ramsey and Gerry Matalon.
Look, ESPN is not going anywhere. It's still by far the largest, most successful sports cable network, dwarfing upstart competitors such as Fox Sports' FS1. Its world-class journalists such as Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham continue to drive the news cycle with their reporting on the NFL civil war between commissioner Roger Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Looking to connect with younger consumers, ESPN just launched "SportsCenter" on Snapchat, with Katie Nolan, Elle Duncan and Cassidy Hubbarth. It also re-signed successful "SportsCenter" host Scott Van Pelt, whose late night show is viewed as a template for more personality focused "SportsCenters." ESPN is far from alone in laying off staffers in the struggling media business.
But numbers don't lie.
ESPN lost a whopping $1 billion in affiliate revenue after dropping 13 million subscribers in just six years, according to the SportsBusiness Journal. Sports insiders agree ESPN overpaid for the NFL's "Monday Night Football" ($1.9 billion annually) and the NBA ($1.4 billion a year). During 2016, ESPN's prime-time viewership fell 19 percent, according to the SBJ. Rather than driving Disney's profits, ESPN has been dragging them down, spooking Wall Street analysts.
Meanwhile, ESPN management threw money at many anchors, analysts and reporters whose contracts were up in recent years to stop them from jumping to FS1 and other competitors. Some lost those high-paid TV gigs this spring. But ESPN is still on the hook to pay their full salaries until they get a new job elsewhere. Not many have over the past six months. Given the length of some of these expensive deals, not many will in the future, according to Awful Announcing.
"ESPN is dealing with three simple math problems. They have fewer subscribers than they planned for. They have higher costs than they planned for. They lower ratings than they hoped for," said one source.
The pending layoffs have sparked worry through the halls in Bristol. As the saying goes, you don't work for ESPN, you marry it. Many ESPN employees have spent most of their careers in central Connecticut, working nights and weekends, marrying other ESPNers and raising children who play sports with kids of colleagues. Losing their job is not just a blip on their resume.
The current "SportsCenter Coast to Coast" with Cari Champion and David Lloyd is expected to go away this spring, according to The Big Lead. It will replaced by a new show fronted by Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre. Champion is expected to succeed Michelle Beadle on the Los Angeles-based "SportsNation," according to TBL's Ryan Glasspiegel, as Beadle moves east to join Mike Greenberg's New York City-based morning show.
One source at a rival network said worried producers, directors and digital staffers are already sending off "just-in-case" resumes to competitors such as FS1, NBCSN and Turner Sports.
Others ESPNers are numb, said another source, believing they survived the past two layoffs by the skin of their teeth.
"The narrative from many long-timers still there is: 'I know my day is coming. It’s not if. It’s when.'"
The suits in the corner office won't be immune either.
"Since there’s less SC shows there’s less need for all management. It was reported that cuts being made later in year to allow some folks to get stock they are eligible for in January. Management level gets stock," a source said.
Then there's the on-air talents who have run afoul of management.
Not many ESPN watchers would have bet Ryen Russillo would survive after the "highly intoxicated" radio host was arrested in Wyoming this August. Russillo profusely apologized after serving a two-week suspension. His old partner, Danny Kannell, was swept away in the last round of layoffs.
But when ESPN Radio announced its new lineup last week, there was Russillo pairing up with Will Cain for the new "Russillo and Cain" show from 3 to 6 p.m. ET. Their show will be simulcast on ESPNEWS.
The biggest question revolves around Jemele Hill, co-host of the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter," who was suspended two weeks with pay for calling President Donald Trump a "white supremacist" on Twitter. Hill is a repeat violator of the company's nebulous social media guidelines. That's usually the thing that gets you axed. Just ask Bill Simmons.
But with Trump attacking Hill as the face of ESPN's alleged liberal bias, management almost has to stand by their their rising star. Or else it will look like they're bowing to Trump. Don't forget Disney boss Robert Iger (who's rumored to be interested in the Democrat nomination in 2020) backed ESPN president John Skipper's decision not to punish Hill. In fact, he seemed to agree with her estimation of Trump.
Still, the word inside ESPN is that nobody's happy about "The Six," including the two stars. Some sources speculate that Hill may leave on her own to talk politics on a news channel such as MSNBC or CNN. There's a culture war raging and Hill has admitted that it's hard to stick to sports when there are vital national issues at stake.
As Toure wrote at The Daily Beast: "ESPN gave Hill a platform and helped her become a national star. But if she can’t speak her mind at this political moment then that platform may not be for her. There was a time when Hill needed ESPN a lot more than they needed her but that power dynamic has changed. She’s a telegenic star who’s widely known. Her suspension has made her more beloved by her fans. If the network is too scared to let Jemele be Jemele, then maybe she should take her mic elsewhere."