Big changes are coming to ESPN’s SportsCenter. Executive vice-president (production, executive editor) Norby Williamson took over responsibility for that franchise back in September, and soon afterwards, multiple reports from October and early November indicated ESPN was planning large layoffs that could impact SC, with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch writing that over 100 staffers would be laid off and “The SportsCenter franchise is expected to be hit hard—including on-air people.” The layoffs that occurred Wednesday affected around 150 staffers, but didn’t hit on-air talent after all.
But it looks like ESPN is still planning to lower its numbers of SportsCenter anchors, and they’re certainly going to be cutting back on the numbers of editions of SportsCenter they air, ending their evening ESPNews editions as of Thursday. Williamson detailed that in a memo posted to the company’s own ESPN Front Row site Wednesday:
With these initiatives we will shift existing resources and the current editions of SportsCenter airing on ESPNEWS between 7-11 p.m. will end on November 30.
SportsCenter will continue to air on ESPNEWS from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Sundays during the NFL season.
As always, we will cover important breaking news at all times of day.
The rest of the memo discusses already-implemented initiatives, such as SportsCenter on Snapchat, SportsCenter Right Now (update segments for linear and digital platforms), and changes to the AM and late night SportsCenter lineups. But it’s the cancellation of those evening SCs that’s the big news here, and that certainly impacts the anchors who mostly worked on those products. Some were expected to be hit by these layoffs, which turned out not to affect on-air talent, but it appears that ESPN still wants to reduce its SC staff, just through non-renewed contracts instead of as part of these layoffs. Deitsch’s report on the layoffs has more on that:
Earlier in the month sources within ESPN said they expected some front-facing television talent to be part of this round of layoffs—including on the SportsCenter side. But ESPN management is now likely not to re-sign anchors with contracts coming up in the next 12 months as part of cost savings. What is likely to happen is some SportsCenter shows will be cut from airing on ESPNews, according to multiple ESPN staffers.
This is an interesting move from ESPN, and one that will likely make the on-air impact of these moves much more gradual. Instead of laying off high numbers of on-air personalities at once the way they did in April, it looks like the company’s now just letting their contracts expire. That’s something they’ve done in the past for disciplinary reasons, with the likes of Sean Salisbury, Rob Parker, and Bill Simmons having contracts not renewed instead of being fired (only a few ESPN employees have ever been publicly fired), and now they’re taking that tack to reduce their workforce.
This tactic makes some sense. This way, ESPN still gets work out of the people they’re paying while they’re still under contract, those people have more time to search for other work (and are in a stronger position to do so), and the changes won’t be all at once and will probably receive less critical media coverage and public backlash as a result. They do lose the advantage of being able to tie all the changes into one quarter for accounting purposes (and thus, making future quarters look better), but the other benefits here probably offset that. In any case, it’s certainly notable that ESPN hasn’t changed its mind on reducing the frequency of its SportsCenter shows and the number of on-air people employed with that franchise; they’ve just changed how they’re planning to do that.
It’s also worth considering how this layoff story has changed. In late October, Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News reported that the next round would see “40-60 positions potentially being impacted.” That piece also included “Another source expects the flagship SportsCenter franchise to lose people in front of and behind the camera. ‘I see (ESPN) going down a path where they have less staff — and hire more production companies to provide programs and fill air time.'” In early November, Deitsch’s report referenced “more than 100 staffers” and said SC “would be hit hard.” But now, 150 people have been laid off, and that doesn’t include some of the front-facing people initially expected, who now are projected to be gone through contract non-renewals.
So these layoffs are much more widespread than first reported. And they seem like further evidence of the severe challenges ESPN is facing, including rising rights fees and their Nielsen-estimated loss of 916,000 subscribers this year. It’s also worth considering that quote from McCarthy’s source about ESPN hiring “more production companies to provide programs and fill air time”; they’ve already done that by picking up MLBN’s Intentional Talk, and more deals like that may wind up replacing some editions of SportsCenter. At the moment, it’s not clear what will take the place of the SC editions that were airing on ESPNews in the evenings. We’ll see how this all winds up, but Deitsch’s report that anchors are likely not to have their contracts renewed shows the staff reductions certainly aren’t over, and neither are the issues that ESPN is facing.