Back in the 1990s, ESPN’s Beano Cook, who was a philosopher disguised as a college football analyst, explained the difference between his employer and the broadcast networks. “ESPN is like your family; it’s there all the time,” said Cook. “The networks are like your mother-in-law; they are there on weekends.”
As ESPN starts another round of layoffs this week, Cook’s analogy is worth revisiting. The way viewers think about ESPN has completely changed over three decades. The company that lumbers from the world of cable into streaming is distant, kind of forbidding, an increasingly part-time presence in its viewers’ lives. As Beano would have it, ESPN has become your in-laws.
Monday was a heartbreakingly familiar day in Bristol. ESPN conducted its sixth round of layoffs in the past decade. The last round, in 2020, arrived without warning: an email from president Jimmy Pitaro followed by a call from a superior minutes later. This layoff had hung over ESPN since February, when Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that 7,000 jobs would be cut across the company. Worse, this layoff will unfold slowly and in installments. “We will have another wave of notifications that will be completed by the start of the summer,” Pitaro wrote in a memo Monday. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that the layoff would have three rounds.
This first round, which began Monday, will claim fewer than 100 jobs, according to CNBC’s Alex Sherman, and target employees who work off-camera. There’s a tendency to valorize the employees in TV’s trenches, who can be nearly as mercurial as the announcers. But I’ve found ESPN employees who work behind the scenes are the ones most likely to define their careers as working for ESPN rather than working in television, period. Many of them have never worked anywhere else.
Take Mike Soltys, the spokesman who was laid off Monday morning. In 1980, Soltys was a bespectacled senior at the University of Connecticut. He ran into ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, who had launched the network the year before, and offered to work for free. ESPN was so shiny and new that it had never had an intern; two of its anchors, Chris Berman and Bob Ley, were 25 years old. Soltys worked in the PR office for the next four decades as a mostly unseen, off-air analogue to SportsCenter anchors. On Monday, Soltys signed off with a phrase he used when those anchors left: “We wish him well.”
How did ESPN change so radically in the eyes of viewers? First, the company wished a lot of people well. In a decade, ESPN’s layoffs have claimed around 1,300 jobs. That tally doesn’t count employees who left voluntarily, left semi-voluntarily, left because their contracts weren’t renewed, or reduced themselves to part time.
The list of people who walked fully or partly out of ESPN’s door in the last decade includes: Bill Simmons, Jemele Hill, Dan Le Batard and his gang, Skip Bayless, Michael Smith, Keith Olbermann, Ryen Russillo, Colin Cowherd, Cari Champion, Kenny Mayne, Trey Wingo, both Mike Golics, Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Maria Taylor, Wesley Morris, Matthew Berry, Marc Stein, Ethan Strauss, Jayson Stark, Dana O’Neil, Danny Kanell, Trent Dilfer, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Jane McManus, Tom Rinaldi, “The Bear” Chris Fallica, Howie Schwab, Chad Ford, Nate Silver and his gang, and just about all of my former Grantland colleagues.
Show me a media company that lost anything like that roster over the same period. ESPN didn’t just lose good hosts, producers, and writers. It lost people who were doing their jobs in something other than the prescribed ESPN way, people who made a media behemoth seem almost human. It was like removing welcome mats from the Death Star.
The way we think of ESPN changed when Pitaro replaced John Skipper as the company’s president in 2018. One way to understand how the two men handle the job differently is to study the way they conduct talent meetings. Meetings with Skipper were liable to start late, end late, touch on cornerstones of American literature, be highly flattering to attendees, and—the attendees realized, as they stumbled out in a warm glow—were somewhat open-ended and unresolved. Pitaro’s meetings start and finish on time. Everybody leaves with marching orders.
This difference is reflected in two presidents’ vision of ESPN. Skipper created an overflowing tier of top stars, many of them former print journalists. You get a show and you get a show and you get a boutique website … Pitaro reduced that number to a handful: Stephen A. Smith, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, Scott Van Pelt, Adrian Wojnarowski, Adam Schefter, Mike Greenberg. A recent Post story neatly captured this dynamic. After a source declared that “no sacred cows” would be spared in the layoffs, the story noted that Stephen A., of course, had nothing to fear.
The tightening of the top of ESPN’s roster had good and bad effects. Monday Night Football is better with Joe and Troy. NBA Countdown is mostly better when it’s built around Stephen A. ESPN’s website is far worse after trading good writing for clips from First Take. Pitaro’s vision for the company had the same effect as rounds of layoffs and defections. If you don’t count this handful of stars among your friends, why are you tuning in?
The answer to that question brings us to the final reason viewers think of ESPN differently. Nothing changed the perception of the company more than the shifting media universe and the slow disintegration of the company’s business model. A decade ago, when ESPN had about 100 million cable subscribers, an executive bragged to my colleague Derek Thompson: “We are a destination network, not a network with destination programming. People tune in to ESPN without even knowing what’s on.” When was the last time you tuned into ESPN without knowing what’s on?
As ESPN lost around 25 million subscribers, and turned its attention to streaming, it doubled down on game rights. Ratings showed that games are one of the few pieces of programming that bring live viewers to ESPN or any network or streaming service. Young ESPN had anchors making clever comments about big games that were being shown elsewhere (SportsCenter, NFL PrimeTime). Middle-aged ESPN had anchors shouting about those games (First Take). In its silver fox years, ESPN wants to show the games itself.
To ESPN’s credit, it has landed some big ones: Monday Night Football, now with a better schedule; SEC football and the college football playoffs; NBA regular-season and postseason games (which must be renewed soon); and the first two rounds of the Masters.
Ask Pitaro for his biggest successes in his five years as head of ESPN—the kind of résumé items that could help make him the next Disney president—and I suspect he would name: “resetting” the network’s relations with the NFL; renewing Monday Night; hiring Joe and Troy and the Manning brothers; and landing the 2027 and 2031 Super Bowls, the first in the network’s history.
Securing such rights is a sign of how much ESPN has grown since its single-intern infancy. It’s a necessary step for its survival. But the invitation to “come watch the biggest games” is the same one the old network sports divisions offered. ESPN is now a network with destination programming.
ESPN still has plenty of good people and shows. It will have good people and shows even after three rounds of layoffs are complete. But I find myself drawn to Beano’s old analogy in the inverse. ESPN feels different. When I turn it on these days, I feel happiness mixed with a sense of duty. The voice in my head sounds a tad forced when it says, “It’s great to see you again!”