With apologies to Crosby, Stills & Nash, it’s getting to the point where it’s no fun anymore to report on significant layoffs at ESPN.
But there’s no point in ignoring it, so here’s the Los Angeles Times:
“Financial pressures on Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN will lead to the layoffs of another 100 employees this year in a further sign of how the sports juggernaut has been buffeted by changing consumer habits.”
The same story indicates that ESPN “will hire new employees as it continues to build its digital platforms,” which is corporate-speak for “nothing to see here!”
ESPN’s declining subscriber numbers have been documented faithfully by competitors, media reporters, and other related entities who have (not subtly) reveled in the network’s suffering.
Narratives purporting to neatly tell the story of why ESPN is in free fall abound on the Internet, but in the final analysis ESPN’s problems are rooted in the impossibility of living in the past, the present, and the future.
The network spent a reported $125 million in 2014 on a “massive new digital facility” that would make its building’s infrastructure “future-proof.” Part of that cost went into a technological splurge on the SportsCenter set.
Three years after its introduction, there’s no issue with whether the SportsCenter set can do what it was designed to do. The issue is whether anyone wants to watch SportsCenter.
Twitter, Instagram and countless other instant gratification information feeds are faster than ESPN or any other cable news network can be. And the demand for a series of game highlights followed by player reactions and quick commentary from a talking head has all but evaporated in the present if the network’s drastically diminishing subscriber base is any indication.
Which is why, per Brett Bodner of the New York Daily News, “SportsCenter is expected to be ‘hit hard’ and some on-air talent could be out of a job.” Essentially, ESPN’s 2014 investment was like spending heavily on perfecting the buggy whip just as the Model T rolled out.
Some of ESPN’s difficulties to stay relevant in today’s media market are their own doing. The network’s clumsy treatment of Jemele Hill in the wake of her Twitter forays into social commentary proved that ESPN wanted diverse voices, but not really. They managed to land Katie Nolan, a young, dynamic female with Sports Emmy credentials — and then tried to stick her on the radio with Mike Greenberg.
Photo Credit: Jerry Lai, USA TODAY
Then there was the Barstool fiasco. Something called Barstool Van Talk was canceled after one episode because it turns out that hiring new talent attached to a guy (Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy) who called ESPN reporter Samantha Ponder a “super-prude” and a “slut” in a 2014 blog post is maybe not the best look in Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey’s America.
It seems like every time ESPN shoots itself in the foot these days, the first thing the network does is to get another gun and aim at the other foot.
So what is the plan for ESPN’s future? Maybe showing less live sports. According to James Andrew Miller, who literally wrote the book on ESPN, NFL games on the Worldwide Leader might not be long for this world as the rights fees the NFL demands outstrip ESPN’s willingness to pay to air many of the league’s least desirable games.
Miller cogently suggests that ESPN might reinvest the billions it wouldn’t pay the NFL on “a spending spree targeting CBS’ college football deal with the SEC, a Big 12 deal, baseball post-season, rights to NHL hockey, EPL soccer and a whole buffet table of other properties.”
As a wise man once said, “it’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.”
The only thing we seem to know for certain is that the days of consumers willingly paying for, say, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPNU (as I do now) are just about over.
Hopefully, the last one out of Bristol will remember to turn off the 114 monitors on that “future-proofed” SportsCenter set.