It's a nearly annual question in Bristol: Can we finally cancel the ESPYs?
The awards show—which drew 2.41 million viewers last year, an improvement over the 16-year-low rating it had in 2011 but down considerably from the highs it enjoyed in the mid-aughts—are a money drain. Tonight, even before host Jon Hamm takes to the Nokia Theater stage in Los Angeles for the 21st ESPYs, ESPN will have already spent millions. The ESPYs are a sore spot for a bunch of folks in Bristol for two reasons: 1) Symbolically, it's weird for ESPN to be so comfortably palling around with the athletes it covers (not to mention willfully ignoring some strange exploits that its reporters may or not see in the hotel); and 2) Why not spend that money elsewhere?
It became a particularly touchy subject in recent months, after ESPN laid off hundreds of workers. The network explained the layoffs by pointing to skyrocketing rights fees. Three to four hundred workers in all were shown the door. And yet the ESPYs go on.
Even supporters of the ESPYs will admit it: The awards don't make any sense by their nature. The Oscars are actually important to actors; they can make a career. In sports? We've got the Cy Young Award, the NBA MVP, and the like. ESPY producers and supporters usually counter with some version of: We know that, but it's a night to give back to the community and say thanks to the athletes.
How often do the budget folks in Bristol go after the awards? Every year, according to an ESPN executive. Why? "It doesn't make money."
Well, to be even more specific: It's lost money for years. ESPN—notwithstanding what it spends on live sports rights, Keith Olbermann, and Skip Bayless—is a bargain shopper. The company frowns upon opulence. The less money it spends, the more money it can kick up to Disney. The ESPYs are the finance department's night off.
From the beginning, the awards were conceived as a night of gleeful, indulgent starfucking. They were the brainchild of John Walsh back in the early 1980, when Walsh—a future ESPN vice president and hilariously unreliable gossip—ran Inside Sports in its brief heyday. According to a source close to Walsh, the idea got far enough along conceptually that Dick Clark met with Walsh to talk about it. The show, which Walsh wanted to call the Ace Awards, never came to be, and in the the late '80s, when Walsh became a consultant for ESPN, he proposed the awards show again. No dice.
And then in 1991, when Magic Johnson told the world he had HIV and everyone was convinced it was an automatic death sentence, ESPN tried to think of what it could do. How about an awards show? One name floated, according to a source familiar with ESPN's plans at the time: "The Magics." That idea, combined with a separate awards show pitch, led to the ESPYs, which came to life in 1993. Jim Valvano gave his memorable "Don't give up" speech, and the ESPYs were a fixture on the broadcast calendar. The budgets have lifted off from there.
In the mid-1990s, the budget was about $3 million, according to a source. By 2001, that budget was at $5 million. As of three or four years ago, the network spent $7 million on the awards show, according to two sources intimately familiar with the show's finances. Now? "Even more," says an ESPN source.
How big are those numbers? Compared with other awards shows, not very. But compared with the rest of ESPN in a year of job cuts? Let's pull out those trusty ESPN pay-grade charts that were leaked to us a few weeks ago. A $7 million budget would cover about 17 or 18 additional executives. It would cover the salary of roughly 240 more entry-level PAs. The first few minutes of the show could have covered Howie Schwab until retirement. (Look back at Craggs's piece: Schwab was an important component to ESPYs coverage, too.)
Despite a gesture or two here and there, nothing at all about the ESPYs is really for fans. At bottom, it's a celebration of ESPN's ability to celebrate celebrities—a twisted event, purporting to be aspirational. The ESPY's own landing page on ESPN.com spells it out for the sorry folks back home: "THE ESPYS GIFT BAG: And now the gifts! We only really care about what they're getting. Check it out now!" Those bags are donations, swag from the companies that want athletes to tote their wares, and as telling an example as any of general excess of the event. Each bag is said to be worth as much as $25,000 to $30,000. Athletes and celebrities, and family and friends to the richer and more famous, take them home, and they're not alone: "Executives get the swag bags as well as clients," one ESPYs source said.
There are other big expenditures, too. How big? Think charter flights. Some stubborn athletes and celebrities demand them. ESPN uses Disney's jets when it can; nevertheless, ESPN's on the hook. How much do those flights cost? "Anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000," says a source familiar with the show's budget.
Or let's take an even more specific example. We heard a story recently about Ben Roethlisberger's infamous appearance at the 2009 ESPYs. Shortly after the awards show, Roethlisberger's name showed up in a civil lawsuit. The accusation was sexual assault. ESPN didn't cover it and got raked over the coals for seemingly protecting an athlete who, just days earlier, had enjoyed a great seat at the ESPYs. It turns out that he was also on the cover of USA Today's weekend edition, to drum up ESPYs publicity. (It was a lame cover.) The total bill for that bit of publicity, featuring an athlete ESPN adored and four-time ESPYs host Samuel L. Jackson, grimacing together in a really terrible photoshoot? After accounting for flights and logistics, it came to somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000, a source told us. These are the little things that add up.
Every single year, the conversation about canceling the ESPYs resumes. But our sources tell us that the show has never come close to actually getting scrapped, not even in the layoff year. (ESPN wouldn't confirm any of the numbers in this story, offering support for the awards and saying "it is the premier multi-sports award show celebrating sports and athletic achievement on many levels.") Walsh and his supporters—among them the show's well-respected longtime producer, Maura Mandt—routinely offer up this argument whenever the "we're bringing a community together" argument doesn't fly: Do you want Fox Sports or CBS or NBC to start a sports awards show if we cancel it? Because they will.
It's dubious logic, and surely sounds worse than that to the hundreds of ESPN employees who were let go earlier this year and are now looking for jobs with those competitors. No matter; the ESPYs won.