ESPN’s Talent Twist: Will Loss of Big Voices Hurt Sports Juggernaut’s Game?

Analysis: Disney-owned sports-media giant is navigating a new kind of playing field

Bill Simmons Leaving ESPN
Amy Sussman/Getty Images the New Yorker

If the New York Yankees jettisoned Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez and Chase Headley from the team’s roster, fans would likely revolt. What will viewers do now that ESPN has cut ties with three of its most singular voices?

It’s no secret that ESPN has been bearing down on costs recently. While the Walt Disney-owned sports-media outlet is said to have bid aggressively –and subsequently failed – to keep radio host Colin Cowherd on board, it let both Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons go in decisions that have been framed as ones made with its business in mind. Olbermann’s ESPN2 program wasn’t nabbing the viewers the company needed. And Simmons, despite leading a new sports-and-culture site called “Grantland” and developing into one of the most distinctive sports voices of a generation during his time at ESPN, wasn’t going to add as much value through future endeavors as ESPN might like, John Skipper, the unit’s president, told reporters in May.

Behind the scenes, other veterans have left as well. In recent months, veteran executives like Sean Bratches and David Preshlack – people who helped ESPN get top dollar from its cable and video distributors – revealed earlier this year they were packing up after long careers at the company.

Is ESPN trying to supply 21st Century Fox, NBCUniversal and CBS with enough talent to last until the next round of NFL rights negotiations with TV networks takes place in 2022?

Of course not. But even a media giant needs to tread carefully these days.

Like every other old-school media player watching its customers latch on to streaming video and on-demand mobile viewing, ESPN is navigating an uncertain path. ESPN stocks its schedule with the one thing the experts say TV audiences won’t record and watch later – live sports. Even so, ESPN’s subscriber base is down, a testament to pay-TV customers moving to cheaper and more portable venues for video entertainment. Meanwhile, the rights fees it shells out to leagues like the NFL and the NBA are gargantuan and poised to grow more onerous.

Consider the fact, reported by the Wall Street Journal, that ESPN’s subscriber base has fallen 7.2% between 2011 and July 2015. Then mull over the eye-popping dollar amounts ESPN will pay to sports entities in coming years: a reported $1.9 billion to the NFL annually for eight years and an sum estimated by analyst Michael Nathanson to be between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion handed over to the NBA each year for nine.

Fewer subscribers typically augur ratings erosion and, subsequently, dips in ad revenue, but the trend also suggests ESPN could see a decline in the programming fees it collects from the companies that package the sports service for couch potatoes and weekend warriors. No surprise, then, that Skipper and other executives are scrutinizing the value of high-priced talent, then figuring they can make do with a large roster of announcers and analysts who are just dying for a bigger turn in the spotlight.

For every giant like Bill Simmons or Keith Olbermann, there’s a Jemele Hill or a Dan LeBatard looking to show her or his stuff. If Bob Costas were to leave NBC Sports, his absence would be felt more strongly, these executives theorize, than if a handful of popular hosts take their leave of ESPN.

The burden of proof, however, is on viewers, not the executives following a business plan. Sports coverage in 2015 has grown beyond who won last night’s game and who made the great play. That stuff is available in abundance, along with statistics galore, from the leagues’ own digital sites. Sports stories in the social-media era are about matters of race and privilege; performance enhancement and cheating; the economics of the games.

The tales that captivate fans in this time are ones about football running back Ray Rice caught on tape hitting his then-fiancee – and the effects it has on the NFL’s efforts to keep younger viewers and women interested in the game. Or two WNBA players, Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson, getting married and then annulling the union. Or the New England Patriots and “Deflate-gate.”

Little wonder that NBC’s Costas is better known in this decade, perhaps, for his comments on gun control and Vladmir Putin’s Russia than for calling play-by-play.

Not everyone can opine on such stuff and keep the crowds from hurling popcorn at the screen. It’s a delicate balancing act that will not always result in success. ESPN last July suspended its own Stephen A. Smith for a week after the popular host made controversial comments about women and domestic violence in the wake of the Rice controversy. Even Michele Beadle, another well-regarded ESPN personality, lobbed a few brickbats Smith’s way, courtesy of Twitter.

ESPN still needs people who have flair and can draw a big crowd. The network has taken digs for years about whether its editorial product can highlight problems and controversies involving its business partners, the sports leagues. A longtime viewer might bring up the demise of the 2003 scripted series “Playmakers,” or the company’s decision to break ties in 2013 with PBS’ “Frontline” over a joint project to examine the effects of head injuries on NFL players. Simmons was suspended for three weeks last year after calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” on a podcast.

Despite all that, ESPN operatives ranging from Hannah Storm to Tedy Bruschi have all lobbed a few fireballs in the NFL’s direction. It’s not that these folks’ comments don’t matter. They do, and they reflect well on ESPN. It’s just that their footprint of followers is perhaps a little smaller than those cultivated by the people who are leaving.

ESPN’s Skipper said in May he wants more people like Bill Simmons on his roster. “We will continue to look for outsized talent,” he told reporters in May – but within a certain price range: “Like any general manager, I’d like to find them as a rookie and get them in the rookie cap,” he said.

ESPN remains a titan in the media business. Yet casting off expensive announcers in the name of keeping costs down gives rivals the chance to grow. NBC’s “Tonight Show” was once the only game in town. In 2015, Jimmy Fallon has everyone from Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert to Neil deGrasse Tyson on National Geographic Channel and animated lunacy at Adult Swim vying for his audience. The same is true of ESPN, which must contend not only with Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN, but digital competitors like Bleacher Report, Awful Announcing and SB Nation. What sort of value does keeping Simmons, Olbermann and Cowherd out of these rivals’ clutches have? Their audiences will be smaller, to be sure, but they could also siphon away ESPN die-hards.

ESPN is big, and likely to remain so. With every one of these breaks with talent, however, it runs the risk of looking a little smaller.