NEW YORK — The Walt Disney Co. trotted out Pat McAfee as ESPN’s star new hire at last week’s upfront presentation.
But news that ESPN was forking over an eight-figure annual contract to McAfee went over like a lead balloon at headquarters in Bristol, Conn., where thousands of employees are fearfully waiting to discover if they’re next on the chopping block.
ESPN is about to execute a second round of layoffs to comply with Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger’s demand to slash 7,000 jobs worldwide and $5.5 billion in costs. Among the early names emerging from this second round of cuts is Barry Blyn, vice president of sports research.
You’ll excuse ESPN employees for not cheering the McAfee news when they’re faced with losing their jobs in a cratering sports media economy.
“Too soon was the reaction I got from a few friends. Some that were let go are still working there until June,” one ex-ESPNer told Front Office Sports. “You are coming to grips with your departure, and then you see a big money signing. It’s not anti-McAfee…it’s your ex getting engaged a month after the breakup.”
Howie Schwab, the famed sports researcher who hosted “Stump the Schwab” on ESPN, hears from old colleagues that they are closely watching the growing salary gap between on-air stars like McAfee, Troy Ailkman (paid $18 million a year), Joe Buck ($15 million a year) and Stephen A. Smith ($15 million a year) and the rest of the company.
“They’re are some people who are upset. The timing of it is curious. They’re paying Aikman, Buck, Stephen A. Smith, and McAfee. And then you’re going to lay people off? Kind of weird,” Schwab said. “Nothing against Pat McAfee. Obviously, he brings Aaron Rodgers to the table. He’s already there because he does ‘College GameDay.’ They’re looking to hit another home run. Meanwhile, their singles hitters are going to be fired.”
There’s also resentment toward parent Disney, which owns 80% of ESPN. Some ESPN employees believe they’re being forced to pay for strategic mistakes made by ex-Disney CEO Bob Chapek 3,000 miles away in Burbank.
“This is going to be another public relations nightmare for the company,” predicted Carron J. Phillips of Deadspin.
The first wave of ESPN layoffs on April 24 took out respected names like beloved communications guru Mike Soltys, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, ESPN+ chief Russell Wolff and John Dahl, executive producer of the smash hit Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”
This month’s layoffs are again expected to focus on off-camera staffers and high-salaried executives.
But on-air TV and radio talent will face the music in a separate cost-cutting exercise this June. Those with expiring contracts are the most vulnerable, sources said.
Layoffs are debilitating and sobering for all involved. On The Ringer’s sports media podcast with Bryan Curtis, Jemele Hill recalled how hard it was to say goodbye to friends and colleagues like Jane McManus in 2017.
Hill noted that ESPN’s layoffs hit behind-the-scenes workers much harder than better-paid on-air talents.
“In most cases, they’re going to be fine. Because they have contracts. They have the ability to maybe secure other high-paying jobs. The impact is very different. It’s the audio folks and producers, the people who work behind the scenes, who are the most impacted. Because they don’t have a cushion. They don’t have, in a lot of cases, a soft landing,” she said.
“Many of them, especially at ESPN, have been there for years because it’s one of those places that’s considered to be a destination job. So when these layoffs come, the people that will be primarily affected are the people whose names you don’t know.”
Former “First Take” moderator Jay Crawford noted how readily-available online highlights, cord-cutting, and rising rights fees have created a perfect storm for ESPN’s formerly gold-plated business model.
“It’s so fragmented now. There’s just a million outlets. Studio shows have really been irrelevant for a while. This information is so readily available, that people aren’t turning out to scheduled ‘SportsCenter’ to find out the score for their favorite team,” Crawford said. “I hate it, obviously for the people who will be involved. But what I would say to all of them is: There’s very much life on the other side.”
Yes, the optics of hiring McAfee in the teeth of painful layoffs is tough, countered another source.
But ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro was almost duty-bound to introduce McAfee during the upfronts, where all the networks put on a show to impress advertisers ready to write big checks.
Pitaro viewed the McAfee upfront announcement as another big content investment, along with the new Serena Williams series, he said.
Pitaro (who’s pegged as a possible successor to Iger as Disney CEO) heaped praise on McAfee’s multi-media abilities.
“Pat is a proven talent. He and his team have built ‘The Pat McAfee Show’ into one of the most engaging programs in sports and all of media,” he said in a statement.
Even in the teeth of its fifth major layoff in the last decade, the powerful ESPN continues to produce award-winning TV and content.
During the 2023 Sports Emmy Awards, it won 13 awards, the most ever in a single year in the company’s 44-year history. In another milestone, a record four ESPN personalities took home individual awards.
They were: Peyton Manning (Outstanding Personality/Studio Host); Ryan Clark (Outstanding Personality/Studio Analyst); Mike Breen (Outstanding Personality/Play-by-play); and Lisa Salters (Outstanding Personality/Reporter).
Meanwhile, ESPN’s revamped “Monday Night Football” with Aikman, Buck, and Salters won the Sports Emmy for Outstanding Live Series. The Worldwide Leader’s venerable “SportsCenter” won for Outstanding Daily Studio Show.
But it’s dawning on some ESPN staffers they could be pink-slipped only days or weeks after celebrating their Sports Emmy.
“Morale, in general, is awful,” said one former talent.