When I was in second grade, I used to wake up before 6 a.m. — far earlier than I needed to — just to make sure I caught SportsCenter before I left for school. At the time, I had yet to embrace my inner narcoleptic, so the games I missed the night before were gone from view, unless I caught that hour of highlights in the morning.
There was no YouTube or Twitter to catch up with. No streaming to watch any time of day or night. I wasn’t texting friends about the game, or hanging out at the sports bar (increasingly just social media) to watch what was happening. Life was in real-time, and without frills. The extent to which you “saw” that game or play was confined to the live broadcast or SportsCenter.
The people who delivered those highlights to me were idols at the time. Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, Rich Eisen and a host of others who I can’t recall well enough right now. I woke up with those people so they could tell me what happened in sports. I wanted to be one of them someday. I wanted to be on ESPN.
I said goodbye to the dream of being on ESPN long ago, but not the idea that the network I grew up idolizing was still there. Even amidst the exorbitant rights deals, the talking heads and the increasingly insufferable broadcasts (outside of college football, really), I had faith that the ESPN I once knew was in there, alive and well.
With the news of widespread layoffs on Wednesday, that ideal, as silly as it was, died.
At 29, my opinion of ESPN has changed quite a bit since those days waking up before the sun rose. Like many of you, I can’t stand certain aspects of the network as currently comprised. And I don’t get to watch as many live (non-Syracuse) games as I once did. SportsCenter’s taken a backseat to Twitter as my preferred method of sports news delivery. I couldn’t tell you the last time I consciously turned on ESPN to see the bold “SC” logo on my screen.
And yet, yesterday’s news hurt a part of me.
Not because of some affection I had for a network’s flagship show over 20 years ago. But because of what the layoffs represented with regard to my job and our focus here.
Nothing is permanent. And it appears the first things disposed of in this new order of the world will be the facts that kept it running for so long.
The names tweeted out throughout Wednesday were not the talking heads that yelled on ESPN in the early afternoon. They weren’t the guy who tweets about brands all day. Or the ones who are frequently wrong, but are believed to be core parts of what ESPN is going forward.
No, these were the reporters. The real, honest-to-God ones, who were sourced to the gills, voracious seekers of the truth, incredibly smart and sometimes the brilliant narrators of how we take in the day in sports.
This isn’t to lionize every one of them. Far from it. They, like the rest of us, all have their flaws. But it is to recognize that laying off the WRITERS (something that hits home to me, in particular) is a scary and real thing we’re witnessing right now.
The sports media landscape has not been a kind place for talented writers, and it got less kind on Wednesday by tossing aside incredibly skilled people who likely have nowhere to land at the moment. Sports publications don’t exactly have a ton of budget just sitting around for fresh hires out of college. It seems unlikely they’ll be ready to just toss out six figures (or even something a little short of it) for these new free agents.
What caused all of this, you see, is the pursuit of blind (and foolish) optimism. ESPN happily created a delusional marketplace for sports content. They, more than any other entity, are directly responsible for the insane rights fees, rising salaries, steep cable and internet bills, increased ticket and concession costs, branding and merchandising hikes, etc...
THE ENTIRE COTTAGE INDUSTRY AROUND SPORTS.
It’s actually amazing it took this long for even a glimmer of cracks in the foundation. The whispers of fraud have gone on for a couple years now as ESPN and cable/satellite providers lose subscribers. Not that there was wrongdoing on the parts of ESPN or those providers. Just that the dollar amounts they attached to things were spinning out of control. Sports is the last event people want to watch live, so it’s the last thing advertisers can bank on in a digital age of streaming recaps, gifs and DVR.
ESPN believed it so much that they undermined themselves while continuing to spend. They created smart TV apps and mobile solutions for people to watch elsewhere. They also turned the NBA into an entertainment and financial juggernaut, doubling the prices of franchises overnight. They made the NFL effectively “too big to fail.” College football, despite still not paying players, is as flush with cash as ever. They gave Texas a network to call its own, right before the ‘Horns went into a football tailspin.
The list could go on, but it doesn’t need to.
This isn’t to hammer ESPN for what’s happened, or what will. The good people let go and the families they support don’t deserve that. But it is to point out that it did, indeed, happen. And that the reckoning is far from over.
There will be more events like this. And maybe not just at ESPN. Fox, NBC, CBS — all of them have their own operations with high costs attached and written properties to accompany those broadcasts. ESPN’s weighed out that the video content is worth more than the writing (and advertisers would likely agree).
So for the sake of the industry -- especially the writers -- I do ask that you keep reading. Provide smart commentary and questions. Push writers like myself and others to do better. To be better. Because that’s the only way this profession stays afloat, if it can anymore.
Wednesday taught me nothing’s permanent. Now it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.