When “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ wildly entertaining and revealing oral history of ESPN was published in 2011, it seemed that the so-called “Worldwide Leader” in televised sports, which included a distinctive brand of sports journalism, had grown too big to fail.
In addition to its heavy variety of live programming, ESPN had become a behemoth across the North American sports media landscape to include radio, documentary film production and high-end television and web journalism that was the envy of the profession. It was the only place where many talented, ambitious sports journalists wanted to be.
After all, ESPN.com had grown into a sportswriters’ paradise because of the emphasis on dogged reporting and stylish writing, just as the Internet was maturing, and as print media outlets were discarding some of their best, and most expensive, bylines.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: The Legendary Life of Pat Riley; Jackie Robinson Museum; Latin American Baseball Fiction; Buddy Golf Adventures
Many sportswriters found more than a place to land at ESPN, where some would become “cross-platform” standouts.
In addition to the older generation of print-oriented Baby Boom journalists, ESPN also nurtured younger writers and reporters who grew up with the web, and never stepped foot inside a newspaper newsroom.
But the year 2011 turned out to be the beginning of a stunning downward spiral for ESPN that has cut across virtually all aspects of its operation, and that gutted its journalistic ranks especially hard this week.
Around 100 writers, reporters, columnists and on-air analysts and hosts were laid off, 10 percent of ESPN’s overall editorial staff, a worse bloodbath than had been anticipated.
The reasons are varied and complex, but can be boiled down to a collapsing business model based on extravagant rights fees and a massive drop in cable subscriptions.
The reaction also was engulfed by controversial fare that has been at the heart of ESPN’s most recent evolution: A headlong push into hot-button political, social and cultural topics, some only nominally about sports.
The blogger and radio host who first began writing about ESPN’s ominous financial state in 2011, when few took the matter seriously, is Clay Travis. Trained as a lawyer and the author of books about University of Tennessee and SEC football, Travis has been banging the drum the loudest about ESPN’s political tilt.
While he does exaggerate quite often, his post this week after the ESPN layoffs were announced neatly summarizes what he has been writing for several years about the business side, much of which has come to pass. The left-leaning “politicization” of ESPN is also real, despite the denials of sports media types with similar views. ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady, has expressed concerns about a lack of political diversity at a sports media Goliath that has been vocal about its commitment to cultural diversity.
The layoffs, as Brady noted, were about economics, and while this mix of culture and politics isn’t the cause of what ails ESPN, company officials are curiously doubling down on it in a time of crisis.
In his 2015 book about ESPN, University of Iowa communications professor Travis Vogan wrote extensively about how ESPN tried to “build sophistication” into its programming and editorial products, starting with the excellent “SportsCentury” series that began in 1999.
This was three years after Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC/ESPN, and as “Sports Century” came to an end, so did, for better or for worse, the ESPN that many of us grew up watching, reading and admiring.
Vogan also proclaimed that “we live in an ESPN culture,” a statement that has been hard to argue with. Until now.
ESPN’s decision to go beyond sports, into entertainment, data and now culture and politics, and to pull in more than passionate fans, took root as Disney’s influence became stronger.
Stories and issues championed by ESPN these days—awarding Caitlyn Jenner an ESPY and flood-the-zone coverage of the University of Missouri football and Colin Kaepernick protests—have been sledgehammered across all of sports media, with resulting pushback from more than conservatives.
ESPN’s high-minded cultural sophistication is a factor here, an attempt to appeal to more than couch potatoes who just want to watch ball games. It’s why ESPN has spent millions on verticals like Grantland (now defunct), the analytics-driven FiveThirtyEight and most recently, The Undefeated, which delves into sports, race and culture.
In a fragmented media landscape, it’s understandable why ESPN would want to cater to new audiences. Yet the cable giant got away from what it has done best—live sports programming and highlights presentation, pure and simple.
A couple weeks before the layoffs, ESPN executives insisted they were not going to “stick to sports” and issued a revised sports-and-politics commenting policy. This is absolutely mystifying. What is the business advantage here? Why alienate a substantial part of your base audience?
If you read the comments on Brady’s public editor columns, readers and viewers can’t state clearly (and sometimes crudely) enough how they come to ESPN for sports, not cultural or political edification. Do these consumers not matter to the decision-makers in Bristol at all?
So the entertainers/shouters/pontificators are staying, for the most part, while solid, seasoned and plugged-in journalists are gone. While the layoffs didn’t hit the featured writers at ESPN The Magazine, the daily grinders, the beat writers, those with scoops and access to athletes, coaches, front-office officials and others will be far fewer in number.
As Jeff Jacobs wrote in the Hartford Courant, “We are not Red Smith. We are Stephen A. Smith.”
The roster of departures is staggering:
Ed Werder. Andy Katz. Brett McMurphy. Dana O’Neil. Jayson Stark. Johnette Howard. Jim Caple. Trent Dilfer. Danny Kanell. Jerry Punch. Tom Farrey. Jean-Jacques Taylor. Len Elmore. Ashley Fox. Melissa Isaacson. Scott Burnside. Jane McManus.
I could go on, because there are so many more, but it’s breaking my heart. Most media layoffs are accompanied by hopeful bromides about talented people finding good places to land, but it’s obvious many of those terminated this week will not.
Not many laid-off journalists have, especially in a viciously competitive sports media industry that increasingly values youth and personality and cultural diversity over experience.
What happened this week isn’t a death knell for ESPN, or for the excellent journalism it continues to do. It still makes enormous profits, and it’s been cutting and bidding farewell to iconic talent for the last few years. There figure to be more rounds of reductions.
The days of ESPN as a hub of creative energy and dynamic innovation in sports media also haven’t come to an end, but neither is it the shining beacon for others to emulate, as pointed out in “ESPN The Company,” a 2009 business management book.
Increased competition and fragmentation have eaten away at ESPN, which decided this week to lop off a slice of its journalism empire to stem the bleeding. Yet others fear, with some justification, that the latest developments are a grim harbinger of things to come.
I’ve never been a fan of Dave Zirin—especially on sports and politics—but he made a good observation this week on the possible long-term effects of these layoffs to younger, aspiring reporters, writers and analysts:
“The fear is that what we are seeing at ESPN will be a stalking horse to further a process already underway.”
That conclusion was prompted by a discussion he had with an ESPN journalist he didn’t name, who told him that “piece by piece, you’re witnessing the end of journalism as a career path.”
The sad thing is the people who were let go this week weren’t the source of the problem. Many of those who made management decisions that put ESPN in this spot are still there.
Jacobs wrote that while watching a shout show on ESPN, he mentioned to his son that he couldn’t find NBA highlights from the previous evening:
“He took the clicker out of my hand, went to YouTube and called up three playoff games that had been edited to all the scoring plays. It was great. Spent 15 minutes and was totally up to date.
“My son looked at me and said, ‘Now we can go on ESPN and yell at each other for 15 minutes.’ “
A Few Good Reads
- Howard Beck on why there won’t be another Michael Jordan;
- One of Henry Abbott’s last stories for ESPN before he was a layoff victim is the May magazine cover story on LeBron James;
- Wright Thompson on the difficulties for Pat Riley to step away from the NBA after a legendary 50-year playing/coaching/front office career;
- Adrian Wojnarowski on Steve Kerr’s physical agony that may force him to get out of coaching;
- This is a familiar, but freshly-told tale by Brian Blickenstaff for Vice Sports on the Bavarian village of Herzogenaurach, birthplace of of the Dassler brothers and the modern sports marketing industry, for better or for worse;
- The history faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is in an uproar over the cancellation of a sports history class taught by professor Jay M. Smith, co-author of a 2015 book about ongoing investigations at the UNC flagship campus that allege academic fraud by athletic department tutors and the African-American Studies Department;
- At Fangraphs, Travis Sawchik gives the tape measure treatment to a new generation of ballparks he claims is literally pushing fans further and further away from the action;
- For Box to Box Football, Norwegian sports journalism student Ola Bjerkevoll visits the tiny Oceania nation of Tuvalu, where the battle for soccer respect–and official recognition by FIFA–is hard to come by;
- In Portland, Ore., a major American soccer hotbed, owners of the Portland Timbers are planning a $50 million stadium expansion entirely with with their own money, which has Field of Schemes proprietor Neil deMause happily gobsmacked: “It’s largely how sports works in Europe, and it’s only worthy of note here because the North American sports business model has become so based on getting public money for these things. It’s like a little taste of a happier world where I could retire this website and write about something else;”
- Like many of his White House predecessors, President Trump golfs a lot, but he’s got nothing on Woodrow Wilson;
- This sounds like a lot more fun than playing the same 18 holes at Mar-A-Lago: Two friends who peddled 800 miles from Oregon to California on bicycles, hauling carts behind them, on one hell of a golf trip, as they took in gorgeous oceanside courses between Bandon Dunes and Pebble Beach;
- At long last, ground was broken this week for Jackie Robinson Museum in New York, with 94-year-old Rachel Robinson on hand. Among the exhibits to be featured will be the wedding dress she wore in 1946, as Jackie was preparing to play for the Montreal Royals a year before he integrated Major League Baseball.
Sports Book News
- At Only A Game, Bill Littlefield raves about “Kill the Ámpaya!,” a new collection of Latin American baseball-themed short stories translated by Dick Cluster, whose specialty is Cuban fiction;
- Recently off the presses from Rowman & Littlefield: “Baseball’s Roaring Twenties: A Decade of Legends, Characters and Diamond Adventures,” by Ronald T. Waldo, which goes beyond the obvious storylines to include such obscure figures as Duster Mails, Augie Prudhomme and Possum Whitted;
- New from Schaffner Press: “Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball and Chronic Illness” by Emil DeAndreis, a college baseball star crippled by rheumatoid arthritis;
- Paul Dickson, author of a new Leo Durocher biography, compiles a concise, compelling list of baseball books that changed minds;
- Shawn Fury, author of “Rise and Fire,” a history of the basketball jump shot, reviews two new NBA books: “Return of the King,” about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 title run, and “Golden,” about the professional evolution of Stephen Curry.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 81, published April 30, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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