Big names among layoffs as ESPN responds to changing media market (w/video)

ESPN on April 26, 2017, began another round of layoffs, this one aimed at on-air personalities, perhaps the starkest sign yet of the financial reckoning playing out in sports broadcasting as cord-cutting proliferates. [Richard Perry | The New York Times]
ESPN on April 26, 2017, began another round of layoffs, this one aimed at on-air personalities, perhaps the starkest sign yet of the financial reckoning playing out in sports broadcasting as cord-cutting proliferates. [Richard Perry | The New York Times]
Published April 27 2017

ESPN began laying off employees Wednesday as the Bristol, Conn.-based sports network adjusts to a media landscape reshaped by the loss of millions of cable TV subscribers.

President John Skipper told employees Wednesday morning to expect job cuts this week as ESPN makes unspecified changes in its "talent lineup." Dozens of jobs were eliminated in the downsizing.

"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," he said in a message to employees and made public Wednesday.

"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.

ESPN is reportedly laying off about 100 employees, including former athletes-turned-broadcasters Trent Dilfer, Len Elmore and Danny Kanell, in a purge designed to focus the sports network on a more digital future.

The cuts will trim ESPN's stable of on-air talent and writers by about 10 percent.

The 36-year-old network has been squeezed by rising fees to broadcast live events at the same time millions of cord-cutting TV viewers have been canceling their ESPN subscriptions.

"Around 50 names you will recognize; another 50 you may not," James Miller, a journalist who has written extensively about ESPN, tweeted about those who were laid off.

By Wednesday morning, numerous ESPN employees were announcing their departures on social media.

College basketball reporter Dana O'Neil tweeted:

C.L. Brown, also a college basketball reporter, tweeted that he learned he lost his job while on holiday in Spain.

Danny Kanell, former quarterback for Florida State University, the New York Giants and Denver Broncos who co-hosted an afternoon radio show, tweeted that he moved to Connecticut with his wife and three children five years ago. "Bummed it ended in 3 minutes," he said.

"But totally get it," Kanell added. "All part of a business that is rapidly changing. Thankful for the opportunity I was given and people I got to work with!"

Included among the layoffs are college football analyst Brett McMurphy, a former reporter with the Tampa Tribune and SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford, a former sports director at WFTS, Ch. 28.

Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch tweeted that an ESPN staffer said a call from management about a layoff was "cold as ice."

Skipper told employees that ESPN's content strategy of combining personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with its biggest sub-brand "still needs to go further, faster. And as always, must be efficient and nimble," he said.

As the cable TV industry faces increasing pressure from cord-cutting — subscribers who quit cable in favor of internet streaming and other sources of video entertainment — layoffs at ESPN have been expected.

ESPN has been looking to pare expenses in response to rising subscriber losses and increased rights fees. The network has lost millions of subscribers while paying billions for the right to televise leagues such as the NFL and NBA.

In October 2015, ESPN laid off about 300 people who worked behind the scenes.

The number of households with ESPN's flagship station has fallen from 99 million to 88 million, a decline of 11 percent, in barely more than three years, according to numbers from Nielsen and ESPN's parent, The Walt Disney Co.

At about $7 per month per subscriber for ESPN alone, by far the largest carriage fee of any cable network, that would exceed a $900 million decline in annual revenue over the last several years, if all other revenues remained equal. So-called cord-cutting is not slowing, as TV viewers have a growing menu of online "over-the-top" options.

In response, ESPN has increased its presence and offerings on digital platforms. Disney paid $1 billion last year for a stake in BAMTech, the streaming service launched by Major League Baseball.

Other digital ventures include an online Atlantic Coast Conference network, taking advantage of the ACC's prominence on the college sports scene, and much more aggressive marketing effort and a robust set of offerings on ESPN 3, the online site for sporting event broadcasts.

ESPN said Wednesday its "evolving ESPN app" is the best mobile destination for sports fans and has been bolstered by the recent launch of home screen video and increased personalization.

"On the horizon is more live news video and enhanced video and audio streaming," it said.

In addition, three days of NFL draft TV coverage will be complemented with more online content that can be personalized to match a fan's favorite team, ESPN said.

In May, two of ESPN's biggest journalism brands — Outside the Lines and E:60 — will relaunch with an emphasis on increased collaboration and a larger digital and social media presence.