The big ESPN layoffs that everyone knew were coming finally arrived today, and the culling has been as brutal as anyone could have expected. Though the final number isn’t in yet, various reports have around 100 people losing their jobs, and many of the people who have been fired so far aren’t just long-time, front-facing employees, but those who, like Jayson Stark and Jane McManus, represent what ESPN is at its best: wired, experienced, deeply knowledgable, enthusiastic.
The impetus behind these layoffs is not mysterious (and has nothing to do with the network’s purportedly liberal politics). ESPN has been hemorrhaging subscribers for some time now as a result of cord-cutting, which hurts them much more than other networks given that they charge vastly higher carriage fees. With ESPN having to pay billions of dollars to sports leagues for the right to broadcast the must-see live events that allow it to charge those fees, the network is uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the sudden decline in revenue that comes with the loss of 10 million subscribers over the course of three years.
And so today’s layoffs seem to follow a kind of logic: If ESPN is bleeding money from subscriber losses, they need to offset the damage by making cuts elsewhere in the company. That doesn’t, though, really follow, mathematically. Look at the people who have been laid off today. Sure, it’s possible that veterans like McManus and Stark and Ed Werder were carrying hefty salaries, but no amount of fired reporters and columnists is going to put even the tiniest dent in ESPN’s rights fees. Add up all the salaries of the people who lost their jobs today, and how much of a single Monday Night Football broadcast does it buy? Ten minutes? Fifteen?
So, then, what was the point? The memo released this morning by ESPN president John Skipper is instructive. It was hollow and buzzword-laden in the precise way that is meant to speak to Disney investors who want to be assured that ESPN is still capable of “navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content.” That’s what today appears to have been really about—assuring Disney stakeholders that ESPN is taking things very seriously and is prepared to keep itself lean and competitive. Don’t think too much about how we’re going to continue to pay rights fees with sustained subscriber loss! We’re making cuts! We have a handle on things!
In the end, the real solution to ESPN’s problems will involve much more severe changes than were made today. Perhaps the network will work in closer partnership with leagues and even competitors; perhaps it will find a way to offload deals it can no longer afford; perhaps it will seek some way to simply outgrow its present structural issues, with aid and backing from Disney and even cable carriers who are quite aware of just how much their industry looks right now the way newspapering did 15 years ago. Whatever it is, it won’t have much to do with cuts that amount to rounding errors in the books.
And that’s the truly tragic thing about today’s layoffs, that those who lost their jobs were essentially symbolic sacrifices. ESPN may have bought itself a little more slack from investors today, but its future remains just as uncertain as it was yesterday. Meanwhile, good writers and reporters like Doug Padilla, Mike Goodman, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, and many others—people who were not on million-dollar contracts but nevertheless did quality work on important beats, providing the depth and texture that make the network something more than just a lot of branded content and screaming dullards—are jobless. A lot of good people lost their jobs today, and ESPN got a lot worse, and all of it was probably for no good reason.