That’s a really tough question to answer. This round of layoffs doesn’t seem to be following any kind of set pattern. There are experienced reporters, niche writers, general-assignment writers. There are on-air broadcasters and website writers.
But it’s scary to watch. Several of my students told me today that, as sports broadcasting students, ESPN was their career goal, and now they’re worried that even a job at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports isn’t safe.
Let’s establish one thing to start: The ESPN layoffs are happening for one reason and one reason only — cord cutting. ESPN has lost 10 million subscribers in the past decade, and most of them are due to cord cutting (people canceling their cable TV subscriptions). According to Pew data, 24 percent of all American households do not have cable (16 percent have cut the cord). Among young adults, that number rises to 34 percent.
ESPN’s financial strength throughout the years has been based on its high carriage fees, which are the prices networks charge cable providers to carry programming. ESPN’s have always been the highest in the industry, with the most recent numbers being $7.21. That means that $7.21 of every cable bill in the United States goes straight to Bristol. That’s how ESPN built itself into what it is today. That’s how it can afford the rights fees for so many major sports.
It’s easy to see where this is going. If people are cutting the cord, if nearly a quarter of all homes don’t have cable subscriptions anymore, that’s less money flowing into ESPN every month. That’s a revenue stream ESPN had been counting on that’s not longer as steady and as full as it used to be. And with Disney ownership in charge, there is a bottom line that must be maintained.
Cord cutting, and only cord cutting, are the reasons for ESPN’s moves.
The story put forth by Jason Whitlocks and Clay Travis of the world, that the layoffs are because ESPN is too liberal is, to be frank, complete and utter bullshit. Anybody saying that a political agenda is the reason for ESPN’s moves is lying, is someone who doesn’t understand basic economics, and has an agenda of their own.
Which brings me to the sad lesson for my students from today’s news.
It pays to be a bloviator.
It pays to have hot takes. It mays to have loud, potentially uninformed opinions and to yell and scream on TV.
Look at who has been laid off. It’s the rank and file. It’s reporters, respected veteran reporters and well-thought-of younger ones who traffic in information, who report daily. Meanwhile, the Stephen A. Smiths, the First Takes, the Around the Horns and Pardon the Interruptions remain untouched. What gets rewarded is not measured reporting but being the loudest with the brashest opinions.
I try to rail against hot take culture, to teach my students to do good work that’s based in respect and reporting and strong fundamentals. But they look at the news today, they look at who loses a job and who gets paid, they see what’s incentivized in sports media, and the lesson is unfortunately obvious.