ESPN's layoffs Wednesday didn't touch many of the sports network's biggest personalities and their mega contracts.
Most of the people let go seemed to be the nuts and bolts reporters the network has added in recent years, especially those covering the NFL, major league baseball and college sports. Many were specialized writers for the network's web site. In a small victory for print, the network's magazine appeared untouched.
The network, which has lost millions of cable subscribers and has seen ratings plunge for its centerpiece Sports Center show, has decided to emphasize opinionated commentators like Stephen A. Smith rather than straightforward reporters who uncover facts. Those colorful personalities are the network's most visible and highest paid employees. The network will lose journalistic depth, but major changes appear unlikely in the short term.
Fans no longer need Sports Center for highlights and scores; they are quickly available on mobile phones. The network has decided to make the franchise even more personality driven, making the affable and witty Scott Van Pelt the host of its midnight show. Michael Smith and Jemele Hill with their cool urban repartee and hip-hop references, now helm the 6 p.m. segment. Along with announcing the layoffs, the network said that familiar Sports Center anchor Hannah Storm would have her role reduced.
Because of my college football interest, I was most surprised by the layoff of Danny Kanell, who took a prominent seat at the college football desk the last year or so, analyzing Saturday games from noon to midnight. I also caught the former NFL and Florida State quarterback on the radio, where he co-hosted a talk show with Ryen Russillio, who apparently will also have a lesser role. Kanell, who replaced Van Pelt on the post-noon radio show, seemed a bit unnatural with the long, conversational format. He had football expertise, but lacked authority with other sports and popular culture.
Funny how a relatively minor TV personality will grab your affection. I was a bit miffed to see golf analyst Dottie Pepper let go. At this year's Masters, which ESPN covers on Thursday and Friday, I enjoyed Pepper's interviews and on-course reporting. She's hardly glamorous, but asked questions that drew thoughtful responses. I particularly remember an in-depth interview she did with former Masters champion Jordan Spieth.
Jayson Stark, whose baseball articles on ESPN.com I've occasionally read, was among the laid-off writers I recognized. Veteran NFL reporter Ed Werder, one of the most knowledgable about the league, was also cut. On Thursday came the news that familiar college basketball analyst Andy Katz was given his notice. Another shocker was former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who offered strong insights into the pro game.
Several commentators pointed out that the layoffs are more cosmetic than substantial. Millions in salaries might have been saved, but that's a small amount compared with the billions ESPN pays out to its higher-priced stars and to the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. The network still makes a huge profit for owner Disney, which apparently didn't force the layoffs. They were instituted by ESPN leader John Skipper, who in a jargon-laden memo spoke of changing times and a shifting future.
What course that future takes will be fascinating, I'm sure. For now, the network sacrificed many of its less glamorous everyday workers, who gave the network a ballast of solid reporting. The layoffs gained attention, but will be only the first step in remaking the network.