ESPN expects to part ways with 100 of its journalists, analysts, play-by-play specialists and other members of its talent pool as the Walt Disney sports-media juggernaut places more focus on its rejiggered “SportsCenter” lineup as well as digital content associated with that program.
A person familiar with the situation said those employees will come from the ranks of on-air talent as well as people devoted to producing reports for its print and online outlets. Already, Paul Kuharsky, a nine-year ESPN veteran who has covered the Tennessee Titans and southeastern NFL teams, indicated via Twitter that he did not expect his current contract to be renewed when it expires in July.
“Our content strategy – primarily illustrated in recent months by melding distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with our biggest sub-brand – still needs to go further, faster…and as always, must be efficient and nimble,” said ESPN President John Skipper in a memo sent to employees. “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 demand.”
Others who are leaving include Ed Werder, a longtime NFL reporter; Scott Burnside, an NHL columnist for ESPN.com; ESPNU anchor Brendan Fitzgerald; and MLB analyst Jim Bowden. As part of the ESPN review, some employees who are not part of the current round of layoffs could find their duties changed as a result of later contract negotiations, this person said.
The layoffs show ESPN, like many other media outlets, grappling with massive changes in the way people consume content – even live sports. It’s no secret the business has seen a general decline in subscribers over several years’ time, even as it continues to pay millions of dollars in rights fees every year to the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and other sports organizations to show the games that bring audiences to its screens. In October of 2015, ESPN laid off approximately 300 employees. Earlier that year, it parted ways with two prominent employees, Bill Simmons and Keith Olbermann.
The tough trends have not dissipated. Sports viewing on Disney-owned networks, which accounted for 35% of the total year to date, according to Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser,is down by about 4%.
ESPN has in recent months focused primarily on retooling its flagship “SportsCenter,” aligning specific personalities with each edition of the program. Scott Van Pelt leads a late-night version of the sports-news show, while Jemele Hill and Michael Smith were recently brought to ESPN from ESPN2 to host the 6 p.m. broadcast, which has been dubbed “SC6.”
Executives at the Disney unit are placing more emphasis on mobile video – content that need not necessarily appear first on TV – as well as content related to flagship shows that is designed for digital viewers. As a result, the company placed new scrutiny on its employee base, according to the person familiar with the matter, working to determine whether people were suited to produce content across multiple media venues and whether costs associated with their employment resulted in a sizable enough return.