With the exits of prominent personalities like Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann last year and Mike Tirico and Skip Bayless this week, there seems to be a “Decline and Fall of the ESPN Empire” narrative emerging. ESPN is fighting back hard against that, though, with president John Skipper taking the rare step of writing an ESPN Front Row piece:
At ESPN, we have more than 1,000 public-facing talent, clearly the broadest, most experienced and most diverse collection of writers, analysts, hosts, commentators, reporters and expert opinion leaders in the sports media industry.
It is a also a remarkably stable group, though some change is inevitable for a variety of reasons.
While some may leave, ESPN has always continued to thrive and we have a demonstrated track record of the ability to identify and develop talented people. The current and next generation of great talent lives here at ESPN and we look forward to showcasing them across our unparalleled collection of platforms.
That piece also includes a release from ESPN vice-president (communications) Josh Krulewitz:
ESPN’s retention rate for our talent continues to be extremely high. Some of the most impactful voices across various sports and programs are in the midst of long-term agreements with ESPN.
The recent list of new and returning contributors over the last 12 months alone (see below) continues that trend.
“Understandably when there is a high-profile change, the picture might be viewed through a very small lens,” said ESPN Executive Vice President, Production and Programming, John Wildhack. “Yet the facts are that more than 95 percent of our talent have remained at ESPN and there are a wide range of circumstances surrounding the few who don’t.”
Below is a sample of names from the list of the nearly 200 who have signed new ESPN agreements within the past 12 months: Victoria Arlen, Teddy Atlas, Bill Barnwell, Michelle Beadle, Jerome Bettis, Chauncey Billups, Aaron Boone, Mack Brown, Marysol Castro, Lee Corso, Jay Crawford, Ian Darke, Mike Ditka, Elle Duncan, Neil Everett, Chris Evert,Kate Fagan, Mary Joe Fernandez, Matt Hasselbeck, Raul Ibanez, Bomani Jones, Danny Kanell, Michael Kay, Tim Kurkjian, Suzy Kolber, Don LaGreca, Bob Ley, David Lloyd, Kenny Mayne, Sean McDonough, Patrick McEnroe, Tracy McGrady, Chris McKendry, Jane McManus, Todd McShay, Jessica Mendoza, Rachel Nichols, Molly Qerim, Dan Rafael, Ryen Russillo, John Saunders, Jeremy Schaap, Ramona Shelburne, Pam Shriver, Jaymee Sire, Pablo Torre, Scott Van Pelt, Stan Verrett, Trey Wingo, Charles Woodson, Steve Young.
ESPN isn’t wrong to fire back here, as the “network in decline” narrative is probably overstated. It’s worth noting that some exits (Simmons in particular) weren’t about getting outbid, but about personality clashes, and that the network in general is focusing on keeping versatile commentators rather than just a few of the biggest names. The Bayless exit may even turn into an opportunity for them; if they’re able to find a First Take replacement that can keep 80 per cent or more of Bayless-era First Take’s audience, that may well be worth the reported $1.5 million annual difference between their offer to Bayless and the offer Fox gave him.
However, there’s no question that ESPN’s approach has changed. It used to be that they would pony up to hire and keep the top talent out there at all costs, and in an era of declining revenues and rising rights fees, that no longer appears to be the case. ESPN is still the dominant 800-pound gorilla on the sports cable media landscape, especially when you consider how far they are ahead of their competitors in both audience and subscriber fees, but they’re a gorilla that doesn’t appear to have unquestioned domain anymore. Skipper and Krulewitz are right to note that they’re retaining many more people than they’re losing, but they are still losing some of their biggest names. That’s a change for ESPN, and it’s one that’s worth discussing.