Between 2008 and 2010, ESPN embarked on an ambitious plan to digitally cover just about every pro team and college program worth covering. In New York alone, it hired known quantities such as Adam Rubin, Jane McManus and Johnette Howard. Jean-Jacques Taylor left the Dallas Morning News to cover that city’s teams for ESPN. Brian Bennett got the call from the Louisville Courier-Journal to blog the Big East, and Ted Miller leapt from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to cover the Pac-12. The Tennessean’s Paul Kuharsky was handed the Titans beat. From the Orange County Register came Mark Saxon to cover the Dodgers.
It appeared as if ESPN was trying to emulate newspapers — giving each team or conference a beat writer — by poaching their top talent at a time when getting out of the newspaper business seemed like a savvy move: Around 2009 and 2010, print circulation and advertising revenue hit historic lows.
“The last thing I want to do is to drive a stake into the heart of an incredibly important industry,” Rob King, ESPN’s head of digital and a former newspaper employee, told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times in 2010. “We’re making sure ESPN is doing everything possible to be where the fans are.”
He added that the goal of the local focus was to “touch fans with all our resources.”
That plan is no longer viable. On Wednesday, ESPN announced a massive round of layoffs involving its on-air and online employees, with a sizable chunk coming from ESPN.com’s stable of reporters and columnists. Every person listed above either announced they were being let go Wednesday or already had done so previously.
It’s sadly ironic that ESPN’s stable of former newspaper reporters took a big hit Wednesday considering that the network’s financial distress mirrors the decline of the newspaper industry, only on tape-delay. In 2011 — when print circulation already was well into its bleeding-out stage after reaching its peak in the mid-1980s — 100.1 million U.S. TV households had ESPN, an all-time high. Those cable subscribers pay a fee for ESPN that historically has been about four times higher than the second-most-expensive network. But since then, subscribers have fled cable television and the networks that rely upon such fees, some because of the cost and some because they can get the same information and entertainment elsewhere for less. In November, ESPN’s subscriber base had dipped below 89 million for the first time in a decade.
Fewer subscribers equals less revenue equals “doing more with less,” or at the very least doing things differently. Someone else is going to have to break the news or provide the analysis that once was the domain of an Ed Werder, a Jayson Stark or an Andy Katz, and that news and analysis perhaps is going be relayed secondhand by ESPN after it was broken someplace else. It happened to newspapers, and now it’s happening to ESPN.
The layoffs were just the beginning — and, considering that ESPN already had laid off around 300 behind-the-scenes employees in October 2015, they weren’t actually the beginning, either — and a relative drop in the bucket. A bigger sign of the network’s financial health and future direction will come when it’s time to re-up with the NFL and Major League Baseball (ESPN’s deals with both leagues run through the 2021 seasons). The network pays the NFL $1.9 billion per year for “Monday Night Football,” nonexclusive rights to the draft, one wild-card playoff game and access to highlights, and that price isn’t going to go down anytime soon. For instance, ESPN pays MLB $700 million per year to televise a slew of games. It was a 100 percent increase over the previous annual cost. ESPN and Turner Sports’ latest NBA deal similarly skyrocketed, rising 180 percent over the previous deal.
ESPN’s decisions on whom to keep and whom to let go were obviously difficult. Its decisions moving forward will be much tougher.