Today was a sad day for sports journalism.
In recent weeks, there had been serious talk about another round of layoffs coming to ESPN. Today they happened, and over 100 people, including many on-air personalities, were cut. The grim full list is here, and it reads like the Game of Thrones “Red Wedding” episode. These aren’t just behind-the-scenes people; these are capital-J journalists who were very visible not just on ESPN dot com but also social media and were always doing national and local radio hits. Jayson Stark, who had been at ESPN for 17 years was one of the biggest names let go, along with Ed Werder.
These layoffs will affect people who like IU-related and other college sports content online. Eamonn Brennan is one name that’s especially familiar to IU fans - he’s a Hoosier alum and helped to found Inside the Hall almost a decade ago. In addition, excellent college hoops reporter Dana O’Neil was let go - she wrote this excellent article four years ago about the meaning of basketball in the Hoosier State. In addition, erstwhile ESPN college hoops presence Andy Katz was let go as part of the cuts.
College football coverage also took a huge hit today. Brett McMurphy, who has always been one of the most reliable college football reporters, learned he was being let go today. Brian Bennett, who covered Big Ten football for the network, also got the axe. As a result, the effect of these layoffs is huge of all of us who have used ESPN as a news source for years now.
It’s a tough day for those of us who enjoy sports writing and grew up with ESPN as a constant in our lives, like all of us on CQ staff did. So let’s clear a few things up.
First of all, cuts had to be made somewhere. ESPN gets so much its money through cable subscriber fees. Thanks to streaming options and other ways of getting information, cable subscriptions are going down nationwide. Companies like Comcast and Charter are hemorrhaging subscribers. At the same time, the Worldwide Leader is paying huge sums of money for the rights to live sporting events. For example, ESPN pays $190 million a year for rights to Big Ten games, and that’s only half the money the B1G gets for television. ESPN pays
$1 billion almost $2 billion a year for Monday Night Football - and that’s only for 16 normally mediocre games as well as the bad Texans playoff game that no one wants to watch.
As a result, today’s move doesn’t have anything to do with “politics” at ESPN, as many have tried to claim today. This all boils down to economics, and not because ESPN - who once voluntarily hired Rush Limbaugh to talk about football - has some sort of liberal bias. Plus, Fox News and FS1 are losing cable subscribers at the same rate as ESPN as well, so this affects all channels.
But the real story behind these cuts are what ESPN has chosen to cut. They’ve gotten rid of veteran reporters like Werder, Stark, and O’Neil, but they’re also getting rid of some of their best younger, up-and-coming reporters. This includes Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who was the ESPN beat writer for the Warriors, a team that is the heavy favorite to win the NBA Finals and is in the midst of their playoff run right now. And god forbid you check out ESPN for hockey coverage, because all of those writers are gone too. There’s no rhyme or reason to the people who were let go.
What ESPN seems to basically be saying here is, if you aren’t a screaming hot take artist with an opinion that’s louder or more controversial than others, you’re in danger at the network. The abrupt closure of Grantland two years ago hinted at this, but today made it evident.
All in all, ESPN has made a clear decision that good journalism isn’t necessary for their bottom line. The hot sports take content that is pervasive across the internet extends to ESPN as well. For a network that’s ubiquitous in bars, gyms, barber shops, and pretty much any other public place with a television, it’s an incredibly short-sighted decision, but one they will have to live with. People will continue to cut cords, no matter what the content is on ESPN. The cuts were inevitable. But the network at least had a chance to prioritize good reporting over sports shouting. And in that aspect, it failed.