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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

With Layoffs Looming, ESPN Staffers ‘Looking Over Their Shoulders’

  • Former executive: 'Everyone, even senior vice presidents, don't feel like they have any job security anymore.'
  • Losing a job in sleepy Bristol is more traumatic than in larger metro markets.
ESPN prepares for another round of layoffs.
Photo by Joe Faraoni/ ESPN Images

Only 12 years ago, author James Andrew Miller wrote the rollicking best-seller, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World Of ESPN.” But there’s not much fun inside the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports these days.

An ongoing series of layoffs has put hundreds of ESPN employees on edge as they fearfully await a second round of cuts this spring. Then the on-air talent will face the music in a separate cost-cutting exercise this summer.

ESPN’s startling decision to part ways with respected mainstays like John Dahl, executive producer on the Emmy-winning Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance,” and beloved communications guru Mike Soltys, a 43-year veteran, has sent a chill through the ranks. 

Besides key players like Stephen A. Smith, Kirk Herbstreit, Mike Greenberg, and Scott Van Pelt, there are few untouchables, especially talent with expiring contracts, sources told Front Office Sports.

 ”People are looking over their shoulders. People are concerned, ‘Will I be next?’” warned Howie Schwab, who was laid off after 26 years a decade ago. “People don’t approach ESPN the same way they used to, from some of the veteran people I’ve spoken to. It’s really disappointing. Because ESPN was a great place to work.”

ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro cited parent Walt Disney Co.’s decision to slash 7,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in costs as the reason for the layoffs.

“I do not want to minimize the enormous toll of saying goodbye to dedicated colleagues that have worked tirelessly to strengthen ESPN and deliver for sports fans,” wrote Pitaro in an internal memo. 

Five Layoffs In Last Decade

Schwab has a point. 

His former colleagues are suffering through their fifth wave of layoffs in the past decade. ESPN has added many new jobs and created multiple new businesses. But the Disney-driven cuts are sapping the morale of ESPN’s 5,000 employees, 4,000 of whom work at the main campus in Bristol, Connecticut. 

For the first three decades of its 43-year corporate history, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” was the envy of the sports world.

Starting in 1979 with a couple of satellite dishes and Australian Rules Football, ESPN became an empire. It expanded to over 100 million U.S. homes, swallowed the late Roone Arledge’s legendary ABC Sports, discovered the NFL Draft as a TV property, and landed rights to virtually every pro league and college conference that mattered.

The network’s wise-cracking anchors, such as Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Craig Kilborn, and the late great Stuart Scott, became more famous than most of the athletes they covered. 

ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter” mockumentary commercials depicted the Bristol campus as a sports fantasy world where anchors like Jay Harris and Steve Levy rubbed elbows with athletes and funny mascots. The hip campaign was the toast of Madison Avenue. 

Yes, ESPN was one big happy family. As newspapers and magazines downsized, every sports columnist worth their salt wanted to flee to the Worldwide Leader — including Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated’s biggest star.

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman enhanced ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ program. Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images

Growth Amid Changes

The network still does great work and accomplishes big things business-wise.

Over the last decade, it has launched major new businesses such as the ACC Network and ESPN+ (which now boasts 25.3 million subscribers). ESPN Films’ Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” was a ratings smash. In 2017, ESPN Films won its first Oscar for “O.J.: Made in America.”

This year, it leads all network groups with 59 Sports Emmy Nominations (NBC Sports is second with 38 nods). During its last media rights negotiation with the NFL, it scored its first two Super Bowls after the 2026 and 2030 seasons. ESPN regained NHL media rights and renewed its rights deal with Major League Baseball in 2021, took the SEC Conference’s top football package away from CBS Sports in 2020, and picked up UFC rights in 2019.

With Troy Aikman and Joe Buck entering their second season, ESPN now boasts its best “Monday Football” announcing team ever. During 2022, ESPN’s overall viewership rose 14% from the year before. Hiring Omar Raja away from Bleacher Report has helped fueled growth across social platforms such as Instagram.

In short, ESPN is much more than a linear operation. It’s a sprawling multi-media giant that straddles sports.

Changing Reality

But cord-cutting has slashed ESPN’s footprint to 73 million U.S. homes from a high of over 100 million two decades ago. Rather than just out-spending everybody else, a more frugal ESPN has passed on expensive deals for the Big Ten Conference, Major League Soccer, and NFL Sunday Ticket.

With parent Disney wrestling with its own business challenges, ESPN had layoffs in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2020, and 2023. 

Those mass cutbacks shed hundreds of on-air talents, producers, directors, editors, and executives. Among them were big names like Schwab, former host of “Stump the Schwab” who was laid off in 2013, and NFL analysts Ron Jaworski and Trent Dilfer, who lost their jobs in 2017.

The layoffs don’t even include those talents who were pushed out the door by proposed pay cuts (Kenny Mayne), not offered new contracts (Mike Golic Sr.), bought out (Jemele Hill and Michelle Beadle), or asked out early (Dan Le Batard).

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Even after five rounds, the Disney-driven layoffs still shock the true believers at ESPN. 

New employees thought they had it made, that they’d won the sports media lottery by working for the four letters. 

They believed ESPN’s lucrative dual revenue stream of cable subscriber fees and advertising made them virtually immune to the threats roiling the media business. 

But like print journalists, they’ve learned the hard way that employee cutbacks are not a bug but a regular feature in today’s cratering sports media industry. A decade of layoffs has taken its cumulative toll.

“From what I can gather, the culture there is at an all-time low. Everyone, even senior vice presidents, don’t feel like they have any job security anymore,” said one former executive who’s getting frantic phone calls from ex-colleagues. 

So Much For Family

There’s an old saying: You don’t join ESPN; you marry it. 

Some, like Soltys (the second-longest tenured employee), joined the network straight out of college. For many, it’s the only gig they’ve ever had. 

Many staffers have worked at ESPN for decades, met their future spouses/partners there, and raised families in towns all over central Connecticut. In some ways, the area is like a company town, where most people work for the same employer.

To these folks, getting thrown off what Patrick calls “The Mothership” feels like a death in the family. Some unfairly blame themselves. They struggle with a sense of failure and shame.

Front Office Sports interviewed several employees who’ve been pink-slipped. Others posted about their experiences on LinkedIn. They describe an emotional rollercoaster akin to the five stages of grief.  

Ashley Fox was an NFL columnist.
Ashley Fox was an NFL reporter until her layoff in 2017. Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

Denial In Bristol

The sports media empire has been the destination job in sports for decades.

For many employees, the four letters define their career and their lives. They can’t picture working anywhere else. 

A former NFL reporter, Ashley Fox recalled her April 2017 layoff on LinkedIn. 

“I was gutted that day six years ago, naively blindsided and quite literally left in a heap on my kitchen floor, fearful for my future and afraid my life and career were over,” she wrote. “A lot has changed since that day. So the fact that the anniversary didn’t register this year on my personal calendar of horrible, dark days was a very, very positive sign.”

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Many of today’s 40-something employees wonder if they’re more likely to be carried out on their shield than get the gold watch and a retirement party.  

The most accomplished veterans are at risk during the current downsizing due to their high salaries. That’s the inverse of how business should work, according to Schwab.

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, we were family — and family took care of each other. Now it’s not just a business; it’s a cutthroat business,” he said. “You should be rewarded for doing a good job. Instead, you could lose your job… There’s something wrong with that. 

“You reward people for doing a good job. You don’t say F-U.”

Anger on Campus

Some laid-off employees get furious. How could they do this to me? After all, they sacrificed countless weekends, weddings, vacations, birthday parties, baptisms, and bar mitzvahs to devote themselves, heart and soul, to ESPN. 

“I’m mad that no one thought my job was worth saving. That I wasn’t worth saving,” wrote Keri Willis, a director of management operations, who was dropped on April 24 after 22 years. “I know everyone says it’s not personal, and it’s not performance-based, so then what? They put everyone’s personnel numbers in a hat and picked randomly? (that last part is a joke, but could you imagine?!?).”

She’s also mad at herself for being “blindsided” when she should not have been. 

“That was mainly on me because I let myself think I was ‘safe’ even after all these layoffs over the years,” she wrote. 

Others resent the “institutional arrogance” that’s making ESPN employees pay for corporate mistakes made by Disney, especially since ESPN generated $22 billion in profits for the Mouse House from 2012-2018, according to Miller. 

Bargaining for New Opportunity

The ESPN layoffs are not as bad for accountants, lawyers, and others. They can get a job in Hartford, the world’s insurance capital, only 25 minutes away. 

But layoffs are life-changing for production/programming staffers producing live sports and studio shows. Getting cut in Bristol is different from losing a job in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. They can’t walk across the street to other T.V. networks. 

Some land at NESN, the regional sports network in Boston. But Beantown’s a two-hour commute. Others try for jobs at NBC Sports, YES Network, or the WWE, all located in Stamford, Conn. But that’s still 90 minutes away. 

Some live near Fairfield, an hour’s drive from Bristol. There they can catch a Metro-North train into Manhattan. That’s a long commute — but it gives them job options.

Sadly, losing your job at ESPN often necessitates a “total life change,” said Schwab.

Disney is open to potentially selling an equity stake in ESPN.

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On the positive side, the COVID-19 pandemic enabled some laid-off workers to consult from home in Connecticut, said one former staffer dumped after 20 years. Or only commute to New York or Boston a few days a week. 

He said that if they hustle, ex-ESPNers can use their experience as “jumper cables” to restart stalled careers. 

“To be honest, leaving there was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened a lot of doors — and I don’t have to deal with the corporate bullshit that I did at ESPN. A lot of the skills I built there have become transferable to a bunch of different clients.” 

Depression After Departure

Still, the reality of life after ESPN is depressing. 

Laid-off employees describe the humiliating experience of bumping into former colleagues at the supermarket, Little League games, and backyard barbecues. 

“It’s definitely awkward, especially at first,” noted the former executive, whose kids still play with those of former colleagues. 

Sometimes they’re greeted warmly by their old comrades. Others treat them with a mix of fear and pity — as if they’re contagious.

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Then there’s their own personal status. They can no longer brag about working at ESPN to friends and family. That leads to soul searching. 

How do I address my layoff publicly? What do I tell my kids? Do we have to sell the house and relocate? Who am I without the four letters next to my name?

One former employee said working for ESPN becomes you image and calling card.

“It’s like being a Catholic and working at the Vatican. It’s the highest. Your friends who love sports look at you differently,” he said. “The phone call I got to work at ESPN was easily one of the great days of my life and it’s that way for a lot of people.”

Weirdly, being ejected from her ESPN cocoon was a “relief,” wrote Willis.

“I graduated college and started at ESPN two weeks later, so it’s the only professional job I’ve ever known. I grew up there. I honed my leadership skills there. I met my husband there, for crying out loud! Now I am being forced to find something else. So instead of floating down the lazy river, I have to summon up the guts to head down the waterslide and determine what I want to do next!”

Acceptance of New Reality

Eventually, life moves on. So do former ESPN workers who’ve left the Mothership. 

The famed sports researcher Schwab jumped to rival Fox Sports for several years. He still works directly with Dick Vitale, one of ESPN’s most popular and enduring personalities. 

Getting laid off in 2013 allowed Schwab to stay by his dying wife’s side for the last year of her life. He’s since remarried and is living in Florida.

“I’m very happy with my life. ESPN is in my rearview mirror,” Schwab said. 

Fox has become a consultant and motivational speaker. 

“As I learned, those four letters didn’t define me,” she wrote on LinkedIn. “Great success can come after great adversity as long you stay true to your core beliefs and never, ever give up.”

Like long-lost family members, they still come together, such as at the wake of the late legendary producer Barry Sacks

There’s Life After ESPN

Those ESPNers who’ve been laid off are part of their own fraternity. They employ gallows humor, mockingly describing themselves as the “Class of 2023” or the “Class of 2017.”

Federal law requires employers with 100 or more employees to give 60 days’ notice of a mass layoff. 

Like Willis, Soltys’ last day is June 27 after getting pink-slipped on April 24. 

The PR maven is experiencing the Tom Sawyer-like feeling of attending his wake. And learning how much he’s respected.

“I’ve gotten such an overwhelmingly warm greeting from everybody I’ve seen. And that makes the period of limbo, not awkward but really very positive,” Soltys said.

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Former anchor Jay Crawford wants his old colleagues to know there’s life beyond ESPN.

The ex-“First Take” host is one of the lucky ones. ESPN bought out his contract in 2017 – effectively paying him not to work for two years. 

Now Crawford’s happy as a nightly news anchor in his beloved Cleveland.

“My overarching message to them would be: You’re all very talented. There is a market for what you do. This is not the end of the world,” Crawford said.

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