How should we think about ESPN after the carnage? It’s a tough question. ESPN isn’t “dying.” It’s not even losing money. Let me direct you to a couple of words in the memo ESPN president John Skipper sent out Wednesday to announce that the Worldwide Leader will lay off 150 people, its second big cut since April. In certain areas, Skipper wrote, ESPN will simply “do less.” For a company that was bent on taking over the world — journalistically, technologically, and otherwise — that’s a heck of an admission.
Even in happier times, ESPN had a knack for retreating. Remember the ESPN phone? The parallel-universe, Gen X–curious network where Keith Olbermann wore a leather jacket? There were even ESPN feature films, and one of them was directed by Peter Bogdanovich. (On a recent trip to Bristol, I saw a Hustle poster hanging on a wall, like the posters that hang at single-screen movie theaters that closed years ago.)
ESPN’s recent ambitions didn’t seem crazy at all. The company was going to raise an army of print reporters and take on — or even replace — the shrinking sports pages in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. “ESPN’s local venture ranks with SportsCenter itself as one of the most paradigm-changing projects the network has conceived in its 30-year history,” Gabriel Sherman wrote in GQ seven years ago. Now, if we’re talking paradigm shifts, it’s not that ESPN is putting newspapers out of business.
As Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch noted, there weren’t expected to be many boldfaced names among today’s cuts. (Studio production people were reportedly particularly hard hit.) This is how ambition is scaled back. You have fewer dot-com editors, and so you push less copy. An NBA writer who wants to file a gamer is told, “Nah, don’t worry about it.” A news story gets shrunk into a “Shortstop” post. ESPN has one reporter covering the hottest team in the NBA instead of two. It has no reporters covering the New Orleans Pelicans. It will keep doing SportsCenter, but without the same bottomless farm team of young wiseacres. (Here is the mandatory line where we say that a bunch of Ringer staffers used to work at Grantland and ESPN.)
It was weird to think about an ESPN that couldn’t find room for Ed Werder or Jayson Stark or Jane McManus. It’s almost weirder to think about one whose ambitions are held in check — about an ESPN that can’t churn out any form of content it wants to.
This is the third ESPN layoff in two years, meaning there are now enough ex-ESPNers to make up an informal support group. Welcome to life after the Worldwide Leader … Today, McManus and Dana O’Neil, who were laid off in April, tweeted messages of support. “There are hundreds of people that are on edge,” host Jay Crawford, who was also let go in April, told me recently. “They’re trying to face the next chapter of their life not knowing whether it’s now or whether it’s going to come later. Everybody there is under a cloud.”
Crawford said he’d heard some hosts who have long-term contracts were hoping they’d be on today’s list so they could simply move on. For other employees, who don’t have huge contracts, being on the list would be terrible.
So many people have been laid off that bad news is now circling back on itself. In April, ESPN laid off Paul Kuharsky, who covered the Tennessee Titans. Kuharsky told me recently that the supervisor who gave him bad news had also left ESPN, because she feared she would be in the next round of cuts. It’s like a scene out of a Rust Belt factory, where a supervisor performs his bosses’ awful task and then finds the bosses waiting for him.
Producer Gus Ramsey, another member of the ESPN diaspora, wrote a blog post Wednesday offering some advice. In the days after a professional setback, he noted, it’s easy to buck yourself up by saying that everything’s going to turn out fine. The mantra gets harder to repeat when months roll by without a job — one as good as the one you had at ESPN, anyway. Ramsey recently got his next great gig, as program director of Dan Patrick’s sportscasting school at Full Sail University. It took him two years.
ESPN’s contraction is such a huge story that it can at times feel like an isolated catastrophe. Yet today, all you had to do was scroll through media Twitter (past the news about Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor) to see that BuzzFeed — a company that supposedly knew how to game the digital world — is cutting about 100 employees after failing to meet revenue goals.
Indeed, since April, ESPN’s bad news has been matched by bad news across sportswriting. Vice Sports, Vocativ, FoxSports.com, and MTV News all pivoted into oblivion. It’s scary to think what the unemployment pool would look like now if The Athletic hadn’t been built as an ark for displaced sportswriters.
I won’t argue with anyone who says ESPN had an especially shitty year, one marked by executive bumbling and bizarre editorial choices. It takes a special effort to find yourself in a standoff with Donald Trump, Dave Portnoy, Jemele Hill, and a Twitter egg who was hypothetically going to get offended if Robert Lee called a football game.
I’d just add that having a bad 2017 wasn’t a feature unique to ESPN. There was a time when a lot of us sportswriters thought Bristol was immune to the bloodshed of the industry. If we didn’t work there ourselves, perhaps ESPN would show us the way in the digital world. After today’s news, it seems layoffs are the new normal, at ESPN and everywhere else. As they used to say at the Worldwide Leader, we can’t stop ’em. We can only hope to contain ’em.