UPDATE 4/26: The layoffs at ESPN are said to be closer to 100, according to sources. Here is an updated list of the biggest names laid off by ESPN.
The layoffs at ESPN might turn out worse than predicted, sources tell Sporting News.
The Worldwide Leader in Sports could cut around 70 TV/radio anchors, reporters, analysts and online writers over coming days and weeks, sources said.
That would be worse than the 40 to 50 on-air talents predicted by ESPN book author James Andrew Miller during a podcast with Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated.
The higher numbers may reflect the inclusion of online writers like respected Titans beat reporter Paul Kuharsky who tweeted Monday his contract is not being renewed.
"This could be a bloodbath," warned one source.
ESPN's corporate campus was "eerily silent" Tuesday, said another source, as staffers anxiously waited to see who'll survive what management is euphemistically describing as a "right-sizing."
"It's like the dead calm before a horrible storm," said the source.
ESPN management would argue that salaries for on-air talent have gotten out of control.
Some ESPN stars are earning from $1.5 million to $3 million, according to Miller. They're not going to make that kind of scratch at other networks. To save their jobs, some of these talents are accepting pay cuts to stay with the network, said sources.
It's no coincidence the layoffs are taking place before ESPN parent Disney's release of its 2nd quarter financial results on May 9.
With ESPN losing 12 million subscribers over the past five years, the brass in Bristol have to show Disney management and Wall Street its willing to bite the bullet on costs.
"They’re not growing. So the only way to show fiscal responsibility is to lay people off," said a TV insider. "This is all Wall Street-driven. This is all about Disney ordering a Code Red."
ESPN declined to comment.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Some ESPN anchors fearing the loss of their jobs are proactively asking management if they can cut their salaries, sources tell Sporting News.
The move to renegotiate existing contracts makes some sense. ESPN is poised to lay off or buy out dozens of your favorite ‘"SportsCenter” anchors, reporters, commentators and online writers over the coming days and weeks.
Rather than waiting for the Turk to come knocking on Cutdown Day, some on-air personnel, and/or their agents, are asking if they can keep their job in exchange for reduced pay.
Their pitch: They love ESPN. They don’t want to leave. They’re willing to accept deep pay cuts to stay with the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
It's worth a shot, but it remains to be seen how successful this negotiating move will be. ESPN has lost 12 million subscribers over the past five years, reducing its footprint to 88 million homes from a high of 100 million. The days of half-measures are over. The layoffs are beginning.
On Monday, Paul Kuharsky, the respected ESPN staff writer covering the NFL's Titans, confirmed he'd been given his walking papers. He could be the first among 30 or so staff writers whose contracts won't be renewed, said sources:
Knew cuts were coming. Sad to say nine great years at ESPN end for me in July. Please stay tuned to @Midday180.
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) April 24, 2017
With parent Disney and Wall Street looking on, ESPN management is playing hardball.
The network is looking to slash tens of millions of dollars in salary costs. Unlike October 2015 — when ESPN pink-slipped 300 behind-the-scene producers, directors and staffers — this downsizing will target the 1,000-plus TV/radio anchors, reporters, commentators and online reporters who constitute the public face of ESPN.
The cuts could kick in before Disney's fiscal second quarter earnings call on May 9 and ESPN's glitzy upfront presentation to Madison Avenue ad buyers on May 16.
That's where the company is expected to announce the new Mike Greenberg solo show on ESPN that will end the 17-year TV partnership between Greenberg and "Mike & Mike in the Morning" partner Mike Golic on ESPN2.
“ESPN is calling this a ‘right-sizing,'” said one source. “They’re trying to focus on their core on-air talent and get the maximum amount out of them, just like everybody else does."
The looming layoffs have set off a "panic of biblical proportions" among on-air talent. Many of the anchors/analysts in danger of losing their jobs are under contract, some for multiple years, said sources.
ESPN is making some of these employees an offer: They can accept 50 percent of the money remaining on their deals and walk away free as birds, or they can hold out for every penny owed, in which case they’ll probably benched and rendered largely invisible on ESPN TV/radio/digital media platforms moving forward.
That's a tough call for on-air talent used to guaranteed TV/Radio exposure and annual raises, said sources. Their decisions may depend on their age and experience, said one source.
"The 30-somethings may look at being off TV/radio as a fate worse than death," said another source. "The 50-somethings, on the other hand, might enjoy a couple of years' vacation courtesy of ESPN."
Even while ESPN is in cost-cutting mode, it's still on the hunt for new talent, especially at the expense of rival Fox Sports 1, led by ex-ESPN phenom Jamie Horowitz.
No less than ESPN president John Skipper himself has tried to recruit FS1 rising star Katie Nolan, host of "Garbage Time," sources told Sporting News. ESPN also tried to hire back ex-ESPNer Charissa Thompson for Chris Berman's anchor post on "Sunday NFL Countdown" before handing the job to Samantha Ponder.
It's easy to forget that ESPN's famous anchors are in our home and on our TV screens almost every day. The suspense around who will stay and who will go has generated enormous national interest among sports media reporters and readers.
Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated was first to report that ESPN would launch "significant" cuts on the "talent side." ESPN book author James Andrew Miller then told Deitsch on an SI podcast he expected 40 to 50 on-air personalities to lose their jobs.
Last week, Daniel Roberts of Yahoo Finance reported the axe would mostly fall between May 1 and May 9. His story has drawn nearly 3,000 comments, testifying to fan passions about ESPN and its talent.
man, like 50% of the 3,000 comments on our story about ESPN layoffs are people saying get rid of Smith and Hill.. https://t.co/w7y8JcLXhb
— Daniel Roberts (@readDanwrite) April 24, 2017
Some of the ESPN veterans facing the layoffs are remarkably sanguine. Anchor John Buccigross, whose contract expires July 1, told Sporting News in an exclusive interview that he's ready for whatever decision management hands down.
"I'm not stressed," said Buccigross, 51, who joined ESPN in 1996. "Whatever happens, happens."
Politically conservative media outlets such as Breitbart have attacked ESPN as a bunch of flaming liberals. They argue the layoffs are proof the WWL's politically correct chickens are finally coming home to roost.
A personal note: Having lived through many layoffs in the newspaper/magazine business, I hope many of these people can save their jobs. What's surprising, and saddening, is that this is happening at ESPN.
MORE: Jason Whitlock sounds off on 'liberal' sports media, Bill Simmons | SN exclusive: ESPN's Mike Greenberg discusses biggest regret about 'Mike & Mike' breakup | Updated list of biggest names laid off at ESPN
For years, we thought those at ESPN were the lucky few, immune from the cyclone battering the media industry, but now it's their turn. Unfortunately.
My best wishes to all of them in this rotten media environment.