Published On: Sun, Dec 3rd, 2017

Media Circus: Impact of ESPN Layoffs; College Football Ratings and More

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ESPN’s annus horribilis continued last week when company president John Skipper announced that approximately 150 staffers had lost their jobs in positions across the company including producers, executives and digital and technology staffers. That followed the layoffs of roughly 100 front-facing staffers last April including many well-known names in sports journalism such as Ed Werder, Jane McManus and Jayson Stark.

Though hiring has continued and the network remains one of the great destinations for jobs in sports media, ESPN has experienced significant layoffs over the last four years. The company continues to be impacted by the changing habits of consumers including cord-cutting and cord-nevers (those who have never purchased a cable subscription) as well as the rising costs of sports rights. The network has dropped in households from 100.13 million in 2011 to an estimated 86.9 million homes, per Robert Seidman of Sports TV Ratings.com. (ESPN2 is in an estimated 86.8 million homes.)

Below, six post-layoff observations on ESPN as they likely head toward more choppy waters in 2018.

• The overview:

As part of this week’s Sports Illustrated Media podcast, Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand and Boston Globe sports media reporter Chad Finn addressed how the layoffs will impact ESPN in the near term:

“ESPN was this gigantic TV company that was going to grow and have all these different TV channels and so it developed this huge portfolio of TV channels,” Ourand said. “To me, now, they are now spending as much time on a Snapchat SportsCenter as they are on ESPNews. All of a sudden this gigantic company which built itself up with all these different channels, which was a great business for a couple of decades, now has to turn and pivot into this nimble company. They are no longer this young, nimble company. They are a gigantic TV company trying to turn and pivot and deal with the Snapchats. Everything that is affecting ESPN is affecting NBC, Fox and CBS in much the same ways; they just didn’t grow to have all these different TV channels and studios and production.

“These were the institutional knowledge people that got let go, the behind-the-scenes people, the ones on the depth chart who made the front-facing people look as good as they do,” Finn said. “If you have worked in this industry for awhile it is names you recognize as people who did good work. The names may not resonate with viewers but it will have an impact on what ESPN is. The quality and depth of their work isn’t going to be the same as it was three-plus years ago when these layoffs started hitting.”

• The impact of the upcoming all-talent meeting:

ESPN management is requiring all of its editorial talent, from people who appear on-air to those who write for the company’s many outlets, to attend a two-hour presentation at the company’s Bristol headquarters on Dec. 13. The topics at the presentation will include the company’s current priorities, the recent changes to the social media policy and how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers and upcoming initiatives. Clearly, the timing is intentional with the layoffs as well as an endless cycle of negative news. The company told staffers that all employees are required to attend the presentation in-person (not an insignificant expense given ESPN has people based all over the country) and if talent cannot attend the meeting due to a work conflict, they must work with their supervisor to confirm the legitimacy of the excuse. Said one ESPN staffer: “I imagine it will be like Dorothy walking outside after the twister to see what’s still standing.”

This is important given Skipper and ESPN executive vice president Connor Schell are expected to provide talent with some sort of blueprint for heading forward. It will be interesting to see if the talent in the room challenges management during any Q&A sessions and how fast the news of the meeting leaks (which it will). 

• The importance of the Mike Greenberg morning project:

Greenberg’s next foray is a huge one for ESPN management given the millions invested in talent and studio costs. The success or failure of the project will follow them for years. The former co-host of the Mike & Mike show will host a new morning show in New York City on ESPN starting April 3 with co-hosts Michelle Beadle, Jalen Rose and one additional staffer (Damien Woody is a serious possibility). That show will enter the most challenging environment in television given competition exists both in sports, politics and cross-over plays such as the Today Show and Good Morning America. The April 3 start date is already a delay from the Jan. 1, 2018 date that ESPN announced to a roomful of media buyers last May and the new start date is no guarantee given the show will be located at a South Street Seaport studio that isn’t yet completed.

Count me as a major skeptic that this show will rate. Why? First, the significant amount of news that is generated in the morning in the era of Donald Trump means more eyeballs than ever headed toward cable news channels. Second, while Greenberg is an affable and talented show mover, he has rarely exhibited a challenging interview style that creates news from guests. Very quickly, this show must provide a POV regarding what it is and what you can expect as a viewer if you invest the time here.

• Institutional losses:

Amid all my reporting in 2015, there was a comment passed along by a longtime ESPN staffer that really struck a chord. If you have endured layoffs at your place of employment, you know how extraordinarily awful they are, and that October ESPN cut the jobs of around 300 employees, about 5% of its workforce, a particularly brutal act of gutting given the long tenures of many of those who were cut. Particularly hard hit were members of the production, technology staff and talent office. Many of these employees helped build the foundation of ESPN and had given their professional life to the company.

“We’re just another company now,” the longtime ESPN-er told me that week. “And that was never the narrative, nor the reality here.”

That was the same message I got this week too. Many of those who lost their jobs have gone public and they represent the institutional fiber of ESPN, people such as longtime Outside The Lines producer David Brofsky, who was with ESPN for 27 years, longtime NBA producer Bruce Bernstein, who was with ESPN for 32 years, and interviewing specialist John Sawatsky, who taught an in-house course that every person hired by ESPN who interviewed people was required to attend.

What is true of ESPN now is what is true of most of Corporate America—institutional knowledge has been devalued. Many of the layoffs this week will hurt ESPN in ways they don’t realize, including something as simple as leaning on Brofsky and Bernstein for advice. The truth remains: There is always money in sports television for ex-coaches who don’t bring nearly the intrinsic value as a back office worker.

• Sunday NFL Countdown:

The viewership for the show has dropped precipitously this year and given the importance of the show as both a ratings play and as part of ESPN’s NFL legacy, ESPN management has a big decision to make heading into next year. Do they keep the current crew of host Sam Ponder and analysts Randy Moss, Matthew Hasselbeck, Rex Ryan, Charles Woodson or blow the whole thing up and start again? Per Douglas Pucci of Awful Announcing and Programming Insider, Sunday NFL Countdown through Week 12 is averaging 1.16 million viewers, down 19% from last year (1.437 million viewers).

• Wait, did Colin Cowherd just say something I agree with?

While I have always admired Cowherd’s ability to go solo for as many hours as he does for as many years as he has, his socioeconomic pronouncements, his John Wall nonsense and on-air hubris turned me off as a listener. (I am certain he does not care about losing me.) But he said something recently on a podcast that was very much on point and particularly astute in comparing ESPN to Fox when it comes to messaging the public.

“Fox Sports has a really easy brand—big games, big stories, big opinions,” Cowherd said. “That’s what we do. … We have the World Series. We have the Super Bowl. We do big opinions, big games, big names and it is a very clear direction. That was the direction they sold me on, and it is the direction they have.”

While there is a lot to dislike about cynical Fox Sports executives and showrunners who enable bloviators and reject sports journalism (e.g. the mass Fox Sports Digital layoffs last June), they make it very clear what they are as Cowherd says. On the big games front, Fox has some very talented remote production people (those who put on live games) and have made some terrific on-air hires in key roles (Kevin Burkhardt, John Smoltz and Alex Rodriguez) that turned around their baseball coverage.

This gets to ESPN at the moment. What are they right now? Who are they right now? The answer is they are a network trying to figure out its identity in 2018. No network has committed more to sports journalism while at the same time laying off a ton. If I asked you to give me a one-sentence slogan for ESPN, what would it be? People in Bristol would say the Worldwide Leader in Sports? Would you?

THE NOISE REPORT
(Si.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. With analyst Aaron Boone headed to manage the Yankees and play-by-play voice Dan Shulman stepping away from Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play duties in 2018, ESPN management has some significant decisions to make regarding its signature MLB franchise.

Let’s start with the remaining analyst—Jessica Mendoza. ESPN management is pleased with her work, she’s a pioneering voice as a woman in what for years had been a position held by men, and short of something unforeseen she’ll be back as an analyst. The question is whether ESPN decides to continue with a three-person booth. ESPN could opt to use one of its existing analysts such as Eduardo Perez, David Ross or Chris Singleton or bring in a high-profile ex-player or manager with previous broadcasting experience (e.g. Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi).

The play-by-play position is the one to watch because ESPN will assuredly stay within its ranks given ESPN’s cost-cutting. It would be stunning if the job does not go to a current ESPN baseball gamecaller such as Karl Ravech, Jon Sciambi, Dave Flemming or Adnan Virk. Ravech would be the favorite heading in but Sciambi landing the job would also not be a surprise. “This is one of our key properties and I would be honored to do it,” Ravech told SI earlier this year “I would hope that I would be considered to do it. Without making a big case for myself, one of the things I think ESPN appreciates is I have worked with as many different analysts over my career there as anyone in the building. So whatever the Sunday booth is, if it is Jess [Jessica Mendoza] and Aaron [Boone], I have worked with them on a number of different event. If it is someone else, I will have proven I can work with them. I think we have several qualified candidates in house who could do it really well. But, yes, it would be honor to be considered and I’d love to do it.”

2. CBS Sports’ coverage of Georgia’s win over Auburn drew an 8.4 overnight rating, the highest-rated college football game to date on any network for the 2017 season. CBS said the game was up 20% from last year overnight rating for Alabama-Florida (7.0). It was also CBS’s highest-rated college football game in the metered markets since the 2013 SEC Championship game (8.7).

Top Five Rated TV Markets:

1)     Birmingham – 38.1

2)     Atlanta – 22.2

3)     Knoxville – 16.1

4)     Greenville-Spartanburg – 16.4

5)     Jacksonville – 13.1

2a. Fox Sports said the Big Ten Championship game between Ohio State and Wisconsin drew an 8.0 overnight rating, Fox’s highest overnight rating for any college football game since the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game.  The fast national viewership number was 12.919 million viewers.

Top Five Rated Markets:

1) Columbus (48.2)

2) Dayton (31.2)

3) Milwaukee (29.6)

4) Cleveland (24.8)

5. Birmingham (20.9).

2b. Fox said Oklahoma’s win over TCU in the first Big 12 Championship Game since 2010 drew 5,901,000 viewers on the broadcast network

2c. Former ESPN college football reporter Brett McMurphy found himself in the middle of a bizarre television moment on Saturday when ESPN announcer Steve Levy credited McMurphy as “our own Brett McMurphy” regarding McMurphy’s news break that Scott Frost would be the next coach of Nebraska. McMurphy, rather inexplicably given ESPN’s investment in college football, was eliminated from his position by ESPN in a round of layoffs in April. Adding another layer to sourcing: Bleacher Report’s Lars Anderson first reported that Frost was headed to Nebraska in this Nov. 24 tweet, which was noted by McMurphy in a tweet.

“I had reported the news, so I was curious what, if any, recognition I would get,” McMurphy said in an email. “When Steve started talking about there are reports about Frost to Nebraska, I was pleasantly surprised he gave me credit and when he said “our own Brett McMurphy” I started laughing. I don’t think it was intentional or mean-spirited, he’s in the middle of calling a game. My phone blew up from ESPN employees joking that I had been re-hired (I wasn’t) and with tons of other tweets and texts. Funniest part was Steve tweeting Sunday “if i failed to mention it… Excellent reporting yesterday by Brett McMurphy” & John Buccigross following up with “ours forever”  What was the coolest thing was hearing from people I hadn’t heard from in awhile. That meant a lot.”

3. Episode 148 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features two segments. First, a sports media roundtable with John Ourand, the media reporter for Sports Business Daily, and Chad Finn, the sports media reporter and columnist for the Boston Globe. That’s followed by a conversation with Omar Raja, the founder of House of Highlights, which is now part of Bleacher Report.

In this podcast, Finn and Ourand discuss the recent ESPN layoffs, which affected approximately 150 positions across the company including producers, executives and digital and technology staffers; what those layoffs mean for ESPN heading forward; why ESPN layoffs produced a torrent of people celebrating such an announcement on Twitter; whether ESPN will have future layoffs in 2018; the state of UFC negotiations with Fox Sports; the NBA’s soaring ratings on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV; whether this is the best era in the history of the NBA, and much more.

Raja discussed how he founded House of Highlights at age 20; what kind of clips appear on the site; what a typical day is like for him surfing the web in search of content as well as culling through user submissions; why the site has generated millions and millions in views; Bleacher Report acquiring House of Highlights in 2015; what kind of comments his most popular posts generate; Snoop Dogg and other celebrities following his site; why it appeals to young NBA players such as Joel Embiid;  what it’s like for Bleacher Report; how often he is on his phone and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• From Norimitsu Onishi: A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death.

• To escape Auschwitz, she left her father to die. Decades later, she got a message from him.

• From Washington Post writer John Woodrow Cox: For six teens at a Las Vegas high school, homecoming week started with a country music concert. 

• As an admiral, James Winnefeld helped run the world’s most powerful military, but he couldn’t save his son from opioid addiction.

• Great journalism thread by Wesley Lowery.

• How the sandwich consumed Britain.

Where Millennials Come From, by Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker.

• The executive editor of the New York Times interviewed Jay-Z.

Sports pieces of note:

• Gregg Doyel on sports writer Jeff Washburn.

• From Martenzie Johnson of The Undefeated: The First Black Quarterback for each NFL team—and how long he lasted.

• From John Branch of the New York Times: After 312 Straight Losses, Juvenile Court’s Girls Basketball Team Prevails.

• Philly.com’s Mike Jensen on the longtime Sixers stat crew.

5. NBCUniversal announced last Tuesday that it will air more than 2,400 hours of coverage of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games from, PyeongChang, South Korea, the most ever for a Winter Olympics. Of particular importance for Olympic viewers: NBC will air live coverage of the PyeongChang Games across all time zones in prime time. No longer will the coverage be tape-delayed in non-Eastern Time zones, a traditional criticism of NBC’s coverage. The 2,400-plus hours of coverage nearly equals the Winter Games coverage of Sochi (1,600+ hours) and Vancouver (835 hours) combined.

The coverage across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app begins Feb. 7 at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with coverage of mixed doubles curling. NBC’s primetime coverage starts the next day at 8:00 p.m. ET, with live figure skating, qualifying in the men’s and women’s moguls competitions, and qualifying in men’s ski jumping. NBC will air the Opening Ceremony on Friday, Feb. 9 in primetime.

5a. NBC announced its Winter Olympics hosts in South Korea:

Mike Tirico will host NBC primetime.

Rebecca Lowe will host NBC daytime.

Liam McHugh will host NBCSN primetime/late night.

Carolyn Manno will host NBCSN AM/late night.

Ahmed Fareed will host NBCSN daytime.

Fred Roggin: CNBC’s curling.

5b. Fox Sports soccer analyst Landon Donovan on the World Cup draw: “The way that FIFA decided to do the draw this year, by putting teams in specific pods based on where they are by rank, lended itself to more opportunities for low-ranking teams. In the past World Cups, there were generally five or six groups where you automatically knew the two teams that were going through. Today’s draw created more parity which is good because you don’t want to be a team and get to a World Cup and say: ‘We’re done.’ Group A, from a rankings perspective, could be the lowest ranked group in World Cup history. That has the possibility to have a team that’s ranked 40 or 50 or 60 in the world advancing to the round of 16, which would be quite a story in itself.”

5c. RIP to Rodney J. McKissic, a former sportswriter for The Buffalo News.

5d. The ESPN senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote a poignant essay on journalism as the guest editor this week for The Sunday Long Read, which is a terrific weekly email newsletter from ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta Jr. and Sports Illustrated reporter Jacob Feldman. Each week Van Natta and Feldman curate what they believe is the best long-form journalism (in all forms including podcasts). To sign up, click here. I asked Van Natta and Van Valkenburg if I could reprint the essay in full. It is below:

There have been plenty of times in my life when I feel like working in journalism has broken my heart.

The first time it happened, I was a young reporter at the Baltimore Sun when the Tribune Company decided, without much forethought or ceremony, that our newsroom would be just fine if they wiped out more than a third of its employees in a single day. Hundreds of years of institutional knowledge, gone in an instant, a move that would ultimately have zero effect on the stock price or long-term outcome of the paper. Mentors, friends, colleagues—all of them told they had an hour to gather their personal items in a box before security would arrive to escort them out of the building. I’d worked at the Sun at that point for nine years, my first job out of college. In my naivety, I thought of the people there as a quasi-family. Many of them had practically held my hand and helped me grow up. My wife, a reporter, was among those spared. I was too.

My best friend, Rick, was among those who got a pink slip. He wasn’t at the office, but got a phone call while he was at Camden Yards, preparing to write a column about the Orioles. That he was one of the most talented and brightest journalists at the paper didn’t matter; he was just a number to someone in accounting. He was scheduled to fly to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby the next day, and when the bloodletting was over, the sports editor sent me in his place because he said, bluntly, he “didn’t have anyone else.” I arrived in Louisville the next morning in a fog, having never covered horseracing or even followed it with a lick of interest. I dropped my bag in the press box, found the bathroom and locked myself in one of the stalls. I cried for 10 minutes, knowing the paper would never be the same, and countless lives of journalists would never be the same. People would have to move to other cities, their kids would be yanked away from their best friends and their first crushes. Some of my ex-colleagues would never work in journalism again, despite living and breathing the profession for more than half their lives.

I don’t think journalism has any special claim to the misery of layoffs. I’m confident that teachers and steel workers and coal miners have similar tales of heartbreak. We tend to be more vocal about our demise because we believe we’re part of a greater good, that there is some altruism woven into our motivations. This frequently makes us an enemy of the corrupt, the cynical, and the powerful. I imagine it hurts a great deal when steelworkers are shoved to the unemployment line, but as far as I can tell, no one cheers when it happens. No one celebrates the way some people do when journalists are cast aside, insisting they got exactly what they deserved. I doubt Wal-Mart would ever sell a t-shirt joking about the murder of farmers or construction workers, something that happened this week for journalists. What I’ve learned, over time, is that it’s not so much journalism I love without reservation or remorse, but journalists. Yes, we fight, we compete, we gossip, we complain. We sometimes preen too much after a good story, or take ourselves too seriously. We also believe, generally, in the same principles. We’re stubborn, frequently to a fault, but each of us is trying to make the world a slightly better place. There is more money and fame and security in trying to burn it down, and yet we choose the righteous path regardless. If that sounds sanctimonious or self-righteous, so be it. It’s still true.

Years after I left the paper to work for ESPN, my marriage fell apart, suddenly and without warning. I’d spent 17 years on the East Coast building a life, and now it was going to be dramatically different. In a panic, I retreated to Montana for a week, to the place where I’d grown up, hoping to keep from coming apart.

Seven of my closest friends, all of whom I came to know through journalism, followed. Rick was among them. Many flew, but two of them drove thousands of miles to get there. (You can also hear two of them, Seth and Wright, in next week’s SLR podcast). We drank, we laughed, we sat by a fire in my parents’ backyard, we watched football and talked about stories we still wanted to write or reporting trips we still longed to take. I felt anchored by our shared passion for writing, no longer dangerously adrift. All the while, a line from one of Sturgill Simpson’s songs kept running through my head: Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life. 

I love journalists. I think once you become one, it gets in your blood, and it never quite goes away — even if you leave the profession, voluntarily or otherwise.

My company had lay-offs this week, as did several others. It’s a tough time to work in media. You can’t help but feel a pang of survivor’s guilt when your name isn’t called. That was on my mind a lot as I read pieces of journalism for this newsletter. There are no words of comfort that feel like they’ll make any difference to those left scrambling, but I’ll say these anyway: This business won’t love you back, but the people in it will. You’re one of us forever.

I’ve never met, or worked with, a single person whose story I picked for this week’s Sunday Long Read. That was done on purpose. I admire their work regardless, and think of them as members of my weird, stubborn, passionate cadre.