ESPN Expects to Lay Off More Talent in Cost-Cutting Move

ESPN expects to lay off some portion of the approximately 1,000 employees who deliver news, podcasts and TV reports for the Walt Disney-owned sports-media juggernaut.

Between now and June, ESPN executives will be looking at the ranks of public-facing staffers – on-air TV correspondents, podcast and radio hosts, and news reporters – and could in some cases opt not to renew lapsing contracts or even buy out existing employment agreements, according to a person familiar with the situation. The scrutiny of talent comes as ESPN faces new challenges in managing costs as subscribers decline and the costs of securing rights to air live sports events continue to rise over time.

“We have long been about serving fans and innovating to create the best content for them.  Today’s fans consume content in many different ways and we are in a continuous process of adapting to change and improving what we do,” ESPN said in a statement. “Inevitably, that has consequences for how we utilize our talent.  We are confident that ESPN will continue to have a roster of talent that is unequaled in sports.”

A number of staffers that might be cut in such a move was not immediately available.

The disclosure suggests ESPN has yet to right-size itself in a media economy in which more consumers have the option to pick and choose the outlets for which they pay. The rise of so-called “skinny bundles” offered by companies like Dish mean consumers need not always choose to have ESPN on the video menu. ESPN is one of the most expensive networks for cable companies to carry, and commands one of the highest programming fees per subscriber. Live sports have for years been seen as the one TV format that thwarts newer viewing behaviors like time-shifting and binge-watching, but lower-than-expected ratings for both NBCUniversal’s 2015 broadcast of the Summer Olympics from Rio and the most recent NFL season have caused many to re-examine that theory.The Disney sports unit has been in similar straits in the recent past. In 2015, the company parted ways with Keith Olbermann after determining ratings performance for his ESPN2 program were not of the level executives desired, and cut ties with Bill Simmons in a decision that was characterized at the time by ESPN as being about business needs. Behind the scenes, other veterans also departed, including Sean Bratches and David Preshlack, two executives who helped ESPN wring favorable terms top dollar from its cable and video distributors.

Executives could look more favorably on staffers who work across media. ESPN’s model currently allows for people to take part in a variety of media forums, according to the person familiar with the situation, and the company certainly gets more out of staffers who might write, opine and report for a variety of ESPN outlets.

ESPN’s focus on talent cuts comes as rival Fox Sports 1 has made some inroads with a bevy of studio shows featuring outspoken hosts and commentators. ESPN in turn has added more personality to its various editions of “Sports Center,” tweaking each broadcast for the time of day in which it appears. Scott Van Pelt hosts a late-night edition of the venerable program, and ESPN just placed Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN2 program “His & Hers,” in the show’s 6 p.m. slot.

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