What Happened to ESPN?

Joe Clark

On Wednesday Afternoon, ESPN announced they were laying off 100 employees, including some on-air talent, effective immediately. With ESPN losing subscribers at a rapid rate and the need to pay growing rights fees, it was a move that seemingly made sense. What doesn’t make sense at all is who ESPN decided to let go. With names such as Ed Werder, Dana O’Neil, Pierre LeBrun, Danny Kanell, Jayson Stark, and Jay Crawford among countless others getting laid off and people like Karl Ravech, Hannah Storm, and Ryen Russillo getting “significantly reduced” roles, ESPN is taking away their best talent when it comes to actual sports reporting. All you need to look at to see what ESPN is becoming nowadays is SportsCenter. ESPNs flagship program, SportsCenter has become a lot less sports and lot more pop culture. As someone who watched as much SportsCenter as possible just a few short years ago with the late Stuart Scott, Neil Everett, Stan Verrett, and Steve Levy on the morning. Thankfully, Everett, Verett, and Levy are still with ESPN and host late night editions, usually leading up to SVPCenter at midnight, which is SportsCenter hosted solely by Scott Van Pelt and one of the only smart thing ESPN has done lately. Now, the demise of SportsCenter isn’t necessarily all ESPN’s fault-the sad reality is that the sports highlight show as we know it is dead. With Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook fans can get highlights in real time at a click of a button. The problem is that SportsCenter doesn’t really even talk about sports that much anymore, it’s just dumb pop culture references. SC6 with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill is solely dedicated to combining sports and pop culture, while Smith and Hill are both really good at their jobs and know sports, the show just isn’t that good. ESPN trying to double down on all this personality-driven TV and getting rid of the people that actually cover sports and do it well will only cause ESPNs subscriber count to go even lower than it is now.

With Wednesday’s layoffs, not only is ESPN losing on-air talent like Werder, who’s been with ESPN for 17 years, but radio host Danny Kanell, which spells the end for ESPN Radio’s best show with Russillo & Kanell, and also probably means Ryen Russillo essentially has no role within the company. They got rid of Jim Bowden, a former MLB GM who appeared on Baseball Tonight in addition to writing “The GM’s Office” blog for ESPN Insider and was pretty good at what he did as his blogs were always solid and showed his past front office experience. Pierre LeBrun was probably their best hockey writer and insider, yet apparently that isn’t enough to keep his job. Doug Glanville, an ex-MLB OF who was a really good analyst and was a member of the Wednesday Night Baseball crew was let go, which is a further hit to the ESPN MLB coverage. My biggest question is what is ESPNs college sports coverage going to be like? Dana O’Neil, their best college basketball writer, got fired probably for not being an ACC shill like everybody else that covers college basketball for ESPN (cough cough Jay Bilas), and she wasn’t the only college basketball writer to be kicked to the curb, as Eamonn Brennan, who spearheaded Bubble Watch, a very in-depth look into every team on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, in addition to writing general college basketball articles has been replaced, along with C.L. Brown, another college basketball writer. In college football, they let go of Brett McMurphy, who’s consistently been one of their top CFB writers and analysts. They let go another handful of college football reporters, mostly guys specific to a conference or a team. The funniest thing to me is how ESPN is blatantly telling their audience how little they care about hockey. It’s the middle of the NHL Playoffs, and ESPN has let go three major hockey writers: in addition to LeBrun, Scott Burnside and Joe McDonald both got let go on Wednesday. That’s not to mention they won’t commit to extending John Buccigrosscontract. Buccigross is one of the most likable personalities at ESPN who happens to be a hockey guy, and a supremely knowledgeable and talented one at that. Letting Bucci go would lose ESPN a lot of fans.

One of the biggest losses of the day was Jayson Stark. One of the best baseball writers out there, Stark is gone after 17 years, and by all accounts he is a genuinely good guy. He consistently provides very good, fun to read pieces, and seeing him go is a huge blow to ESPNs digital content. Hopefully he’ll take his talents to MLB Network where he would be a phenomenal addition to an already very good staff. What would be awesome to see is Karl Ravech, who is supposedly having his role reduced also head to MLB Network, if nothing but for nostalgia sake (which it wouldn’t be because Ravech is still a very talented analyst) as Ravech was very, very good as the host of Baseball Tonight. They also let go of some of the only good SportsCenter anchors left, with Jay Crawford, Jade McCarthy, and Jaymee Sire all being let go. On the surface, the one move puzzling to almost everyone was Ethan Strauss, the Warriors beat writer, getting fired. Strauss is young, smart (he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2008) and genuinely talented, not to mention the fact he was covering the team that might be the most popular in the world right now. Trent Dilfer was also fired, and while he wasn’t all that well-liked, especially in New England, he still provided solid analysis, although with the NFL Countdown crew going through widespread changes it isn’t a huge surprise to see Dilfer handed his walking papers. I’m not going to dispute the fact that layoffs were necessary, but laying off the people who do real reporting is a gigantic mistake on the end of ESPN. Not to single out specific people, but just looking at on air talent, how do people like Sarina Morales (who just got a contract extension) and Britt McHenry keep jobs while Werder and Crawford get canned? Crawford’s been at ESPN for 13 years including being a host on Cold Pizza in addition to being a SportsCenter anchor. He’s good, and a lot of people like him. Sarina Morales’ job is literally to tweet, read tweets, and talk about emojis. McHenry has the same job as Werder, yet he’s a lot better at it then she is. Let’s also not forget this incident where she berated a towing company clerk (let’s also not forget she only go suspended a week for this while Bill Simmons was suspended three weeks just months earlier for calling Roger Goodell a liar, but Simmons’ firing by ESPN is a whole other story). Meanwhile, Ed Werder worked while his family endured an incredibly tough situation with his daughter and son in law dealt with cancer. Yet, Werder’s the one without a job on Thursday.

So what’s next for ESPN? Well, it doesn’t look pretty. With the massive subscriber loss, Disney is reportedly looking for a way to get rid of ESPN, which is reportedly an additional reason the cuts are coming now. What ESPN has in their favor are three things: name recognition, live sports, and 30 for 30. Whenever sports media is brought up, ESPN is always the first name everyone thinks of. There biggest TV competition is Fox Sports One, and they don’t do anything particularly better than ESPN does, especially with regards to daily programming, as thanks to Richard Deitsch you can always keep up to date with the ratings of FS1’s most heavily promoted show, Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe. In regards to live programming, as while ESPNs NBA content is worse than TNTs, they get more games which in turn leads to more eyes on the station, and having the rights to Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Baseball help get people watching. Every single 30 for 30 (an idea that Bill Simmons came up with) is extremely well done and worth a watch, and while very small every new installment gets eyes on the network. Still, with people cutting the cord more than ever, and with ESPN going down the path they are, the future is looking very cloudy for the network that once truly was The Worldwide Leader in Sports.