Wednesday Word: ESPN's mass layoffs make financial sense, but will hurt network's quality of journalism

The world is shrinking.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports, that is.

For the second time in three years, ESPN has undergone significant company layoffs, as on-air talent and staff writers are being ousted from the company.

After spending billions of dollars in recent years to acquire television rights for the NBA and the NFL, the network has seen its subscriber numbers plummet. According to the Washington Post, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers in the last five years—a truly confounding number.

This nosedive has forced the company into layoffs, as NFL reporter Ed Werder, college football writer Dana O’Neil and Badger football writer Jesse Temple, have announced their departures on Twitter among countless others from the network.

While the immediate, surface level meaning of these cuts is the unemployment of many people, there are a couple of larger ideas to be taken from these developments.

First, ESPN’s massive loss of subscribers in recent years is a truly significant moment for sports broadcasting, and something that is probably being underreported amid these layoffs.

However, to say that people have stopped watching sports in recent years is very likely false. Rather, they have simply done so without watching ESPN.

With ESPN having exclusive rights to so many sports and leagues, this means that people are often turning to illegal streaming websites, not other sports networks.

According to results provided by YouGov and Populus, more than 50 percent of Americans interviewed in a 2014 survey said they had watched pirated sports content. Furthermore, these interviewees were between the ages of 18 and 34, showing a correlation between illegal sites and younger viewers that bodes poorly for ESPN’s future. 

While illegal streams may be blurrier, shoddier and less reliable than television broadcasts, they will always be something that ESPN is not: free. Therefore, the downsides of pirated sports broadcasts are countered by not having to pay for them, and ESPN has to compete for viewers even on exclusive content.

It’s not terribly surprising that people strapped for cash would choose to watch sports illegally instead of paying for ESPN. However, the fact that they have this choice is significant, as sports TV broadcasts were completely bound to one place for a long time. This has changed with the recent advent of illegal streaming sites, and ESPN has paid the price for it.

If the ESPN layoffs follow a massive loss in profits, then, it is intuitive to think that the move is money-motivated.

Obviously, ESPN is a business, and while these types of decisions are not easy or enjoyable to make, they are necessary ones for the company.

Furthermore, I’m not going to levie the idealistic view that ESPN should care more about their journalistic integrity than they do about their profits. While that suggestion may be correct, ESPN does have a right to put money first if they so choose, and it would be naive to think of them as a bastion of journalistic standards after their recent implementation of the “Embrace Debate” culture.

Still, that doesn’t mean that all of this isn’t disappointing.

Many ESPN viewers will see some of their favorite on-air analysts depart, while beat reporting for the company’s website will likely take a hit too, as former Mets reporter Adam Rubin explained after his recent departure.

“And the new MLB editor at ESPN wants to get away from ‘thorough’ beat coverage—that’s the precise word she used—and I suppose I was the sacrificial lamb to hammer home that point,” Rubin said to The 30.

Cutting down on “thorough” sports coverage may clean up ESPN’s checkbooks, but it could rid their website and airwaves of the type of insightful, nuanced news that fans crave.

ESPN will likely retain its dominance among sports fans for a very long time, as its brand-familiarity and exclusive sports content are appealing to millions of viewers.

Still, while these layoffs may ease their financial burdens, they won’t do anything to improve the quality of the journalism—and that task becomes even harder as talented individuals are shoved out the door.

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