Thursday, April 27, 2017

A thought about ESPN's layoffs

I got up early this morning and perused this list of the "talent" axed Wednesday from ESPN. There are, to be honest, a lot of names here that mean little or nothing to me. And a number that do matter to me. I follow baseball hard, other sports only enough to remain competent at my own newspaper job.

Some of the baseball reporters/analysts who lost their jobs, I'll miss. Jayson Stark, Doug Glanville, Jim Caple, Boog Scambi, Dallas Braden, to name five. A few, like Jim Bowden, I kinda wonder what took so long.

There was a lot of wailing and knashing of teeth in my Twitter feed about the layoffs, much of it based on the idea -- probably correct -- that ESPN was damaging its ability to conduct quality sports journalism.

But let us not kid ourselves. ESPN, at this stage of its existence, isn't about quality sports journalism. It's about being a major profit center for Disney. And that mission is in jeopardy today.

Thirty-five years ago, when I first got cable, ESPN was one channel -- a bit amateurish and short of resources, but ernest and energetic. Today it is mammoth and slick. It has consumed ABC Sports, once a major brand. A serious portion of my cable bill is devoted to ESPN and its family of channels.

But it's also caught in its own success. Rights fees to games are spiraling upward, in part because other entities have emerged to compete with the Bristol behemoth. At the same time, people younger than me are a lot less likely to fork out the money for cable. ESPN has been sucked into the media disruption later than newspapers, magazines, terrestial radio and over-the-air TV, but sucked in it is.

And I will guarantee you this: ESPN knows its audience a lot better than you and I do. I find it disgraceful that Stephen A. Smith has a job doing what he does and Jayson Stark does not, and it's tempting to say that that reveals what ESPN values. What it really reveals is what ESPN believes the audience values.

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