Some of the latest ESPN layoffs are part of an effort to save its dying flagship program — 'SportsCenter'

Cork Gaines
SportsCenter

ESPN


ESPN announced its latest round of layoffs on Wednesday morning — 100 employees are expected to lose their jobs, including dozens of on-air personalities.

In the immediate aftermath, accusations began to fly about why the almighty ESPN had to lay off employees.

"It's because of its liberal politics! It's killing their ratings!"

This has nothing to do with it. ESPN's ratings are strong.

"It's because it's a dying brand that is losing millions of subscribers!"

This is getting closer to the truth, but it's still way off. ESPN is not dying. Not even close.

ESPN is losing millions of subscribers. According to the latest estimates, ESPN has lost 12 million subscribers in the last six years, a drop of about 12%, and there is no sign the decrease is slowing.

But the problem is much more complicated than that — and at the same time, it's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Not all of those subscribers were ESPN viewers. In fact, it's a safe bet that most of them were not ESPN viewers. Rather, they likely were cable cord-cutters who no longer wanted to pay each month for networks they didn't watch, including $7.21 each month for ESPN alone and $9.06 for the ESPN family of networks.

In other words, the loss of subscribers hurts subscription revenue, but it won't affect advertising revenue, because ratings for ESPN's live sports are strong.

So why the latest layoffs? ESPN is modernizing its business model by becoming more digital, and it's trying to save "SportsCenter." The former is something every media company is doing, and the latter is something that has for years been a huge problem at ESPN.

This was first reported by Jim Miller, the author of "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN," and later confirmed by ESPN Inc. President John Skipper.

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Driving force behind today's decision is different approach to @SportsCenter with increased emphasis on digital presence. #ESPN

It's difficult to overstate how important "SportsCenter" was for ESPN in the years before the internet made everything more accessible. "SportsCenter" was must-watch TV for any sports fan. But the show's ratings have fallen, and ESPN is struggling to keep it relevant.

A year ago, Keith Olbermann, a former ESPNer and "SportsCenter" anchor, was a guest on "The Bill Simmons Podcast," hosted by another former ESPNer. Simmons asked Olbermann how ESPN could save "SportsCenter," adding that because of social media and mobile devices, a show based on highlights is no longer needed.

Olbermann said:

"[Former ESPN Executive Editor] John Walsh said — I think this was 1993 — 'You know, we have done all sorts of marketing and research, and no matter what happens to ESPN, as long as we have 'SportsCenter' and it is a success, we will be dominant in this field no matter what competition arises. Our research indicates that our fans will stick with us if we lose the NFL contract, and they will stay with us if we lose this personality. As long as we have 'SportsCenter' and it is accurate and well done, we will be dominant in this field.' And it's not true anymore because it can't be the centerpiece of the operations for the reasons we already alluded to.

"But they clearly — and I think you would agree with me — they don't know that. And all attempts to change it are predicated on the idea that it can be what it was two years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago when Dan [Patrick] and I did it. And it can't."

In the year since that podcast, it would seem ESPN finally got the memo. "SportsCenter" is no longer a success, and that may be threatening its dominance to a small degree, at least outside of live sports.

As a result, in some respects, ESPN has been quietly rebranding most of its "SportsCenter" shows. Rather than have one entity that airs all day, it now has a family of "SportsCenter"s, each with a personality and spin.

Maybe more importantly, "SportsCenter" is no longer just a highlights show. It is now something more akin to a talk show. Highlights have become an afterthought in many cases, and several of the shows even have new names.

There is "SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt," hosted by the "SportsCenter" veteran, that airs most weeknights at midnight, typically immediately after some live sporting event.

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ESPN

There is "SC6," hosted by sports-talk veterans Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. As the name implies, this is the other legacy spot for "SportsCenter," weeknights at 6 p.m., leading into the evening's sporting events.

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ESPN

But maybe the biggest change is the one that hasn't happened yet but has been rumored for months: a new morning "SportsCenter" hosted by Mike Greenberg of "Mike & Mike."

Instead of highlights, this "SportsCenter" would become something much more like "Good Morning America" or "Live with Kelly" — a traditional morning talk show, with some traditional "SportsCenter" elements sprinkled in.

From Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated:

"ESPN executives are moving forward with the plan to shift Mike Greenberg — one-half of the long-running 'Mike & Mike' radio show on ESPN Radio — into a new role as the lead host of a television show that would air in the mornings on ESPN. The new show will have elements of 'SportsCenter' — which currently airs at that time — as well as a traditional morning show. It is expected to be based in New York City. The new program would put an end to end to Greenberg's on-air partnership with Mike Golic, which began in October 1998."

The Sporting News later reported that Sage Steele, the former host of "NBA Countdown," would move to a morning show, leading to speculation that she would be part of what some have dubbed "Greeny & Friends."

Even this show would have some of the problems put forth by Olbermann. ESPN is trying desperately to move these shows forward and attract a new audience, and yet living in the past with "elements" of the traditional "SportsCenter."

In other words, ESPN is trying to move forward and stay in the past at the same time. Only time will tell if it works.

In the meantime, this rebranding means a lot of familiar faces will lose their jobs as the faces of the changing "SportsCenter," and it would seem that these changes have been in the works for months.

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