With layoffs, ESPN loses quality depth in behind-the-scenes talent

ESPN production crew
The layoffs announced by ESPN Wednesday were the second cutbacks this year. –AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

Tucked somewhere beneath the unyielding news stories of crass male behavior and various causes for national trepidation Wednesday was the headline that ESPN had once again executed a mass layoff.

The news generated some buzz, but not from any sense of being unexpected. If anything, it has become all too familiar.

This time around, approximately 150 employees lost their jobs. In April, ESPN parted ways with 100 employees, many in high-profile, front-facing roles. Neither forced exodus this year matched the bloodletting in 2015 when 300 people were let go.

ESPN announced the news via a memo from president John Skipper posted on its Front Row public relations web page Wednesday morning. He said in the statement that the cuts were made with a shift to a more digitally focused future in mind.

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“The majority of the jobs eliminated are in studio production, digital content, and technology and they generally reflect decisions to do less in certain instances and re-direct resources,’’ said Skipper.

“We will continue to invest in ways which will best position us to serve the modern sports fan and support the success of our business.’’

ESPN remains a singular giant in sports media, but one inarguably smaller in resources, personnel, and scope than it was just a couple of years ago.

The network has taken a significant hit from cable cord-cutters; according to Nielsen Media Research, it has lost in the vicinity of 10 million cable subscribers in the last six years. That coincides with some massive broadcast rights deals with professional sports leagues, including an eight-year, $15.2 billion deal with the NFL that runs through 2021.

The network, which is owned by Disney, is still profitable. But something had to give. It’s not about the quaint notion of putting out a quality product across various platforms while making money. It’s about making maximum money, even if that means dusting off those old tropes about “redeploying resources’’ and “streamlining the operation’’ when it means good employees lose their jobs in the process.

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I understand ESPN isn’t about to garner sympathy, especially in New England, which is rather adept at holding a collective sports grudge and clings to one in the network’s uneven and sometimes inaccurate coverage of Deflategate.

Among sports media followers and cynics, it’s practically a parlor game to speculate who the next ESPN employees to go will be. It does not appear that any on-air talents lost their jobs Wednesday. I’m sure that will disappoint those who were hoping some of the talent that — nobly or aggravatingly, depending on your viewpoint — refuses to stick to sports, such as “SportsCenter’’ anchor Jemele Hill, might be on the outs.

If you came here searching for a partner in schadenfreude, you’re out of luck. I reserve that nowadays for watching creepy famous men get their overdue comeuppance, and the reserves there are getting depleted. I’m not big on cheering for corporate cost savings at the expense of the careers of capable and often unsung people.

No one ESPN got rid of Wednesday starred in a “This Is ‘SportsCenter’ ’’ commercial or came up with a catchphrase that became part of the cultural lingo. It got rid of the people who did their best to make the more famous people look their best. That’s nothing to cheer, no matter how badly the network has handled this or that along the way.

The network said it is merging and, yep, streamlining its news-gathering operation across all media, while “SportsCenter’’ will continue to evolve from the highlights-and-news show it used to be in its heyday to whatever it will ultimately become.

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In some areas, there is no need to wait to see how the company changes. It already has. Click over to ESPN.com, and what used to be a full story often now has the word count and depth of an elongated tweet. Regional sites such as ESPN Boston do not exist in their original format or under their original intention.

The self-inflicted attrition may not be as obvious on television or radio this time around, but the effect will be real. ESPN is losing its quality depth and its institutional knowledge.

According to the Sporting News’s Michael McCarthy, ESPN will save approximately $80 million with Wednesday’s layoffs. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still stacks of money to go around for the favored survivors.

ESPN is opening a new studio in New York in the spring. Mike Greenberg’s “Get Up’’ morning show will originate from there and will replace one edition of “SportsCenter.’’

Greenberg, who made his name as one-half of the long-running “Mike and Mike’’ program that served as the best in-house promotional vehicle in network history, reportedly is making $6.5 million per year. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

And even in tough times, the same can be said for the role of president at ESPN. Skipper signed a three-year contract extension two weeks ago. No terms were announced. Can’t imagine any of the 250 ESPN employees who lost their jobs this year would care to hear them anyway.