I’ve long considered ESPN to be the ruination of sports. From its addiction to hot takes, to its denial of hockey’s existence. From its kowtowing to Roger Goodell, to its unhealthy obsessions with Lebron, Tiger and Tebow.
ESPN is about screamers and preeners. About contrived catchphrases and the self-indulgent ESPYs.
And yet …
Hidden behind its wall-to-wall manufactured shout fests, ESPN also offered solid journalism. Both on the network and the website, it covered the nuts and bolts and occasionally raised serious issues, like concussions in football.
That may have ended last week. In a cost-cutting move, the self-declared “World Wide Leader” laid off about 100 on-air and online employees. They include the best in the business: Jayson Stark, Ed Werder, Andy Katz, Dana O’Neil. People who know how to work sources, write stories, break important news.
Their desks have been emptied, and the so-called Bristol Campus has been left to the gaggle of bloviating ninnies. So brace your ears for daily staccato jabbering from the likes of Dan Le Batard, Tony Reali and — gulp — Stephen A. Smith. You may not learn anything, but you'll know that Woody Paige and Bomani Jones can turn the volume up to 11.
To be fair, those loudmouths are not responsible for good journalists losing their jobs. They play a role (akin to rodeo clown), and parent company Disney has decided that the scream-and-shout is what you, the viewer, demands. Hey, I’m not privy to ESPN’s internal market studies or focus groups. Still, I can’t believe most viewers are signing on for those aural assaults.
I concur with Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who posted on Twitter last week: “ESPN is saving money on shoes by cutting off feet.”
ESPN was forced to make cuts for two reasons. First, its subscriber base dropped nearly 12 percent in recent years because of younger consumers cutting the cord and dumping cable. The network charges an industry-high $7.21 a month for each subscriber — nearly four times that of the next-priciest network, TNT. Many savvy viewers, now able to design their own package, don’t think ESPN is worth $85 a year.
Second, ESPN is locked into obscene long-term rights deals totaling $40 billion with the NFL, NBA, MLB and college football. Advertising fees haven’t come close to supporting those foolish contracts. This isn’t to say ESPN doesn’t still turn a profit, but Mickey Mouse demands more.
And so the bloodletting took place last week. ESPN iced what little hockey coverage it provided. It blasted out most of the people who could actually analyze college basketball. It culled through the roster and zapped a legal analyst here, an auto racing expert there, a sports-business authority there.
I doubt that stops the slide. The economics of media keep changing, and the new rules don’t work in ESPN’s favor. I expect another round of cuts down the road, with more talent ousted as ESPN continues its descent of sizzle over substance.
And all we’ll be left with is the sound of two men shouting in a studio.