ESPN is laying off 300 employees, and has opted against filling 200 open positions because of the costly effect of the ongoing pandemic, but on-air talent appears to have been largely spared for the time being.
The 300 layoffs represent around 6 percent of ESPN’s 5,000-employee workforce, most of whom are based at the network headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
Thursday’s news was not a surprise. ESPN was largely without any live game broadcasts from the onset of the pandemic in March until late June, depriving the network of its main revenue stream during that time.
According to an internal memo obtained by the Daily Mail, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro explained to employees on Thursday morning that the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to expedite restructuring plans that were already underway.
ESPN sideline reporter Lericia Harris, left, broadcasts from the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game between Tulsa and Central Florida on October 3
‘Prior to the pandemic, we had been deeply engaged in strategizing how best to position ESPN for future success amidst tremendous disruption in how fans consume sports,’ read the memo, which was first reported by the New York Post.
‘The pandemic’s significant impact on our business clearly accelerated those forward-looking discussions. In the short term, we enacted various steps like executive and talent salary reductions, furloughs and budget cuts, and we implemented innovative operations and production approaches, all in an effort to weather the COVID storm.
‘We have, however, reached an inflection point,’ Pitaro continued. ‘The speed at which change is occurring requires great urgency, and we must now deliver on serving sports fans in a myriad of new ways. Placing resources in support of our direct-to-consumer business strategy, digital, and, of course, continued innovative television experiences, is more critical than ever.’
The 300 layoffs represent around 6 percent of ESPN’s 5,000-employee workforce, most of whom are based at the network headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut (pictured)
Things aren’t much better for Disney, which owns 80 percent of ESPN and has laid off around 28,000 employees at two US theme parks this year. Over the summer, the company announced it had lost $4.7 billion between April and June, while its cable division – which includes ESPN – was down 10 percent overall.
ESPN’s layoffs will be spread across the company and not concentrated in any one area, according to the New York Post. For now, the network’s biggest names appear to be keeping their jobs, although the Post reported that morning talk-show host Trey Wingo’s contract will end in 2020 and is not expected to be extended.
According to an internal memo obtained by the Daily Mail, ESPN President Jimmy Pitarom (pictured) explained to employees on Thursday morning that the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to expedite restructuring plans that were already underway
Unidentified talent agents told The New York Times that some on-air employees recently re-signed for base salaries of less than $50,000 with bonuses for each broadcast in which they appear. In many cases, the broadcasters were coming off of larger contracts.
Sports television ratings declined sharply during the pandemic, which may be partially due to a rise in streaming services, such as ESPN+, the network’s own premium platform with a reported 8.5 million subscribers.
As reported by the Post, ESPN has also engineered new ways to produce content with fewer employees.
The layoffs could have been more severe had college football been cancelled or postponed, but all of the ‘Power Five’ conferences are currently playing their respective seasons, albeit with condensed schedules.
ESPN’s layoffs were not unexpected. Previously OutKick.com and The Athletic reported that the network would be losing staff.
The Post is also reporting that ESPN is considering a bid for the NFL’s Sunday Night Football, which is currently aired by NBC and has been television’s highest-rated primetime show for the last eight years.
Like much of television, the sports world’s Nielsen ratings have dropped considerably in 2020.
ESPN’s Marty Smith takes a selfie photo next to a cardboard cutout of his likeness before an NCAA college football game between Florida and South Carolina on October 3
For instance, the NBA’s playoff ratings were down 37 percent while the Lakers-Heat NBA Finals had a 49 percent drop in viewership from 2019. NFL ratings, meanwhile, were down 10 percent over the first quarter of the season.
Many, including President Donald Trump, have blamed the leagues’ social justice messaging for turning off fans, due to players protesting racism by kneeling during the national anthem.
However, ratings also crashed in other leagues that had far less social activism.
Major League Baseball, which had only small pockets of protests earlier in the season, saw World Series ratings plunge 32 percent below the previous low in 2012.
In the NHL, where only a handful of players protested, Stanley Cup Finals ratings fell 61 percent from last year.
Although ESPN’s on-air talent doesn’t appear to be facing major layoffs at the moment, morning host Trey Wingo (pictured) will reportedly be gone after his contract expires
Meanwhile the US Open golf tournament had its smallest audience (3.2 million) viewers in the last 30 years, while the Kentucky Derby went from around 15 million viewers to just 9.3 million after being postponed in September.
And while fan objections to athlete protests may explain some ratings declines, PGA golfers have largely abstained from any controversial statements, and it’s not as though the horses at the Kentucky Derby have suddenly become more political.
Then there’s the WNBA, where players protested and vocally opposed Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler’s US senatorial campaign in Georgia. Still, WNBA Finals ratings surged 15 percent compared to last season. Furthermore, regular season viewership was up a whopping 68 percent, according to the league.
While many fans have voiced their displeasure over protesting athletes, other potential factors in the decline in sports viewership could be the ongoing presidential election, which has dominated ratings. There has also been more head-to-head matchup between leagues after the NBA and NHL seasons were interrupted by the ongoing pandemic and forced to finish their 2019-20 campaigns in October.
Furthermore, total live TV viewership has declined about 9 percent from September of 2019 until September of 2020, according to The New York Times, which could be attributed to the popularity of streaming services and digital recording.
The layoffs could have been more severe had college football been cancelled or postponed, but all of the ‘Power Five’ conferences are currently playing their respective seasons, albeit with condensed schedules. In this picture from September 12, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit is pictured on the set of College GameDay