Unlike past rounds of cutbacks, Wednesday's layoffs targeted prominent on-air personalities, including former athletes Trent Dilfer, Danny Kanell and Len Elmore. Studio anchors, including Jay Crawford, and stalwart reporters Ed Werder, Jayson Stark and Dana O'Neil also were ousted. ESPN declined to provide names of their workers who were affected, but dozens announced their dismissals on Twitter.
“A lot of these people have been great performers for ESPN but the business is changing underneath their feet,” said James
The sports leader — like other traditional broadcasters — is racing to reinvent itself for the digital age. Sports scores are instantly available online, and video clips of game highlights have become ubiquitous on smartphones, which makes news programs such as ESPN's "Sports Center" less of a must-see event for even the most ardent sports fans.
Employees learned of the job cuts Wednesday, according to two people who were familiar with the plan but were not authorized to speak about it publicly. Wednesday's layoffs represent about 10% of ESPN's on-air talent, analysts and writers.
The Walt Disney Co.-owned network has been facing challenges on multiple fronts, including a shrinking pool of cable-TV subscriptions — which pay the lion’s share of the network’s costs — and higher fees to the various sports leagues, including the
This is the latest round of cutbacks at the Bristol, Conn., operation, which has long been the biggest profit center for Disney.
"ESPN has been actively engaged throughout its history in navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content," ESPN President John Skipper said in a note to employees Wednesday morning.
Over the last few years, ESPN has seen its subscriber base shrink as viewers opt for less-expensive cable TV packages or renounce cable TV altogether. ESPN now is received in about 88 million U.S. homes — about 11 million fewer than in 2010, which appears to be the high-water mark for pay-TV subscriptions.
"Cord-cutting is happening, and sports is not immune," said Martin Floreani, co-founder and chief executive of digital subscription service FloSports, based in Austin, Texas.
ESPN's reorganization comes after the latest round of sports contracts kicked in. ESPN has been forking over substantially higher fees to retain its top-notch portfolio of professional sports.
The network also is spending more on programming to fend off competitors Fox Sports and NBCUniversal, which also are loading up on sports to build their businesses.
Additionally, regional cable channels affiliated with various sports teams have launched, carving the audience of sports fans into smaller and smaller slices.
"ESPN is facing head winds: they have a falling universe of subscribers … and rising programming costs," said Brian Wieser, media analyst with Pivotal Research Group.
TV audiences are shrinking. Ratings for sports commentary shows — a category that includes ESPN's flagship "Sports Center" — are down 16% so far this year compared with the same period in 2016, according to an analysis by Pivotal Research.
"Live sports are holding up OK … but the ratings for 'Sports Center' are falling off in meaningful ways," Wieser said. "The sports commentary genre peaked in 2010."
ESPN said it was taking steps to create content for the small screen — smartphones and tablets to keep pace with consumers' behavior.
The company also is putting more emphasis on its big names, such as Scott Van Pelt, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, and developing more digital-only content for its ESPN app.
ESPN also plans to eventually roll out a streaming service to appeal to consumers who do not want to sign up for an expensive pay-TV package. The company last year spent more than $1 billion to purchase a 33% stake in BamTech, which hosts streaming services for various companies and organizations.
"But ESPN is facing the classic innovators' dilemma," Floreani of FloSports said. "Everyone knows the future is digital but if they move more of their content to digital, then they will drive more people away from cable TV and that's what pays most of their bills."
ESPN has long been the most expensive channel in the pay-TV bundle, costing distributors about $7 a month, per subscriber home. But people under 40 are less inclined to sign up for a cable subscription. And as more consumers opt for "skinny" cable packages without sports, ESPN has also experienced lower ratings, which means lower advertising revenue.
"A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions," Skipper said in his note. "Our content strategy … still needs to go further, faster … and as always, must be efficient and nimble."
The result, for staff members, can be painful.
Miller, the author, noted that several of the reporters cut had made themselves experts in the sport that they covered.
"If you can't do a lot of things and if you are not a cheap date, then you are like a carton of milk," Miller said. "Your time is expired. That model just doesn't work for ESPN anymore."
Those who lost their jobs include:
Eamonn Brennan, college basketball writer
Scott Burnside, hockey columnist
Jim Bowden, senior baseball analyst
Jeremy Crabtree, writer who covered college football recruiting
Trent Dilfer, NFL analyst
Brendan Fitzgerald, studio host for ESPNU
Mike Goodman, soccer writer
Pierre LeBrun, hockey reporter
Joe McDonald, hockey writer
Jane McManus, sports writer
Brett McMurphy, college football reporter
Dana O’Neil, writer who covered college basketball
Mark Saxon, baseball reporter who covered the St. Louis Cardinals
Jayson Stark, baseball reporter
Jean-Jacques Taylor, columnist who wrote about the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers
Jesse Temple, football reporter who covered Wisconsin and the Big Ten
Derek Tyson, analyst
Austin Ward, football reporter who covered the Big Ten
Ed Werder, NFL reporter
Times staff writer Chuck Schilken contributed to this report.
4 p.m.: This article was updated with additional analysis and reaction.
12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with social media announcements by additional people who lost their jobs at ESPN.
10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with social media announcements by additional people who were laid off.
9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with social media announcements by some of those who were laid off and with additional background information.