What Is Going on at ESPN?

How cord cutters, Fox Sports 1, and the declining fortunes of SportsCenter are hurting the “worldwide leader.”

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill on set of ESPN’s SC6.

ESPN Images

On Wednesday, ESPN announced that it was letting go of around 100 employees, many of them recognizable on-air talent. (Among the names were football analyst Trent Dilfer and Golden State Warriors reporter Ethan Sherwood Strauss.) Back in 2015, ESPN laid off approximately 300 employees; this latest move, like the previous one, seems to reflect the company’s need to scale back costs at a time when cord-cutting and a dwindling subscriber base have sparked fears for its future.

To discuss ESPN’s decision, and the future of sports broadcasting, I spoke by phone with James Andrew Miller, the co-author (with Tom Shales) of Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. (His latest book is Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the network will need to do to survive, why loud personalities will play an even larger role going forward, and whether ESPN will give up on great sports journalism.

Isaac Chotiner: Were you surprised either by the scale of the layoffs or the people chosen?

James Andrew Miller: Well, look, we had fair warning. I have even reported that I thought there were going to be about 50 names of people you would recognize. I think I—along with a lot of other people—didn’t realize there would be another 50 who we might not recognize. One hundred is a pretty big number for ESPN, particularly in terms of “talent.” I know auto companies lay off tens of thousands of people, and all sorts of industries lay off people, but this is a different kind of animal and was surprising.

I just wanted to get everybody in a room and play that unbelievable scene from Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams says, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” These people did not screw up. When you think about Jayson Stark and Ed Werder, these are people that are good at what they do. Bad things are happening to good people. These people had the misfortunate of working for the company at a time when it is trying to make a rather significant paradigm shift in terms of ts strategy for content.

How do you define that shift?

I think that they are becoming much more interested in versatility and are less interested in big price tags. They are shifting their emphasis to digital, as opposed to these big SportsCenter extravaganzas with highly recognizable faces. And, by the way, well-paid faces. And so these people were caught in this maelstrom of change.

Part of the appeal of your book on ESPN was that we got to hear a history of ESPN told through ESPN personalities who sports fans recognize. Do you worry that will go away and in the long run damage the brand?

Well no, because the operative word in your question is personalities. ESPN happens to be paying a ton of money for Stephen A. Smith, for example. It’s not that they are down on personalities. It’s that the reporting part of it—they feel that that content is a little more generic, and as a result, it is hard to distinguish in the marketplace. Whereas with Stephen A. Smith, you have a very distinctive voice, and they think that that makes it easier to break through in such a crowded, noisy ecosystem.

Bryan Curtis at the Ringer compared this to newspaper sports sections laying off people like feature writers but generally keeping, at least for a while, what he called “loudmouth columnists.” Is that a good analogy?

I think so. If you are a solid reporter who operates between the emotional 40-yard lines and don’t say outrageous, irresponsible, sometimes downright wacky and other times downright inaccurate stuff, and you don’t have a huge “following” of your own, it turns out you are an endangered species.

Some people have suggested that this is a response to viewer complaints about liberal personalities at ESPN—

Those people are smoking crack.

Do you want to say more?

It’s just ridiculous. There is no connective tissue between the two. I spend every day watching, thinking, studying, analyzing ESPN. I don’t see it at all.

How do you think ESPN has been acclimating itself to this new sports consumption environment?

That’s a big question, and I could talk for an hour on that. On Sept. 7, 1979, when ESPN went on the air, SportsCenter was there. And for decades, SportsCenter has been a huge, huge brand, and it has been something that has garnered a lot of attention. The “This is SportsCenter” campaign, without a doubt, was the most successful ad campaign in sports history. But ESPN had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that technology had overwhelmed it. It was interesting, if you look back at some of the Keith [Olbermann] and Dan [Patrick] or Robin Roberts and Bob Ley and Charlie Steiner shows, they were able to go to a commercial teasing what the score was going to be. We now have it in our phones. We are watching it on our phones. What do we need to watch SportsCenter for?

I am not saying the show is totally dead, but you know, they are promoting the 6 p.m. SportsCenter by talking about things like movie reviews. It’s just a very dynamic time, and they are trying to figure out how they can thrive in terms of studio shows and reporting in a marketplace that has tougher competition than it used to and more opportunities for people to get the kind of information that ESPN used to basically have ownership of.

How successful do you think Fox Sports 1 has been at challenging ESPN?

It’s easy to acquit or convict. There are numbers that will suggest that FS1 has had some really, really interesting growth at the expense of ESPN2 as of late. The numbers are still somewhat modest for both of them, but I think people at FS1 feel like they are creating momentum and are in a position to take over the audience of some of these types of ESPN2 shows.

Part of what ESPN is doing today—and it is not a single solution, because there are many things they have to do—is saving money. ESPN is more dependent on live rights than ever before. And we have a lull of a couple years before things start coming to market again, but pretty soon Monday Night Football, the NFL package, Major League Baseball will, and they have to be in a position to win and dominate those kinds of negotiations perhaps to an even larger degree than they did in the past.

ESPN has had its ups and downs in terms of journalism, but do you worry there will be a lot less of the great journalism it does going forward?

It’s a legitimate concern, and when you look at the people getting let go today, you are going to scratch your head and wonder. I think they have a really strong legacy in this world of sports journalism, and it would be a crime to lose it or throw it out the window. It is all about triage now. They are having to make decisions for the first time in their history that they haven’t had to make. And those decisions will define what ESPN is going to be in the future.