ESPN laid off nearly 150 employees on Wednesday. The hardest-hit departments were “producers, executives and digital and technology,” according to SI’s Richard Deitsch. This was the second major staff reduction this year, the first coming in April.
This one was different than the previous. Few front-facing names were impacted whereas the April layoffs became a cascading avalanche of talent announcing they’d been cut. Look no further than the way sports media outlets covered the story in real-time yesterday. There were few updates and bold-faced names. Compare this to earlier this year, when The Big Lead and others kept a running tally of those affected.
An honest and and admittedly cynical reason for the difference is the names of those affected yesterday aren’t valuable by traffic and SEO standards. But the truth of the matter is that these 100-plus people were just as important — if not more so — to the company than the smiling faces who appear on television sets every day. The producers worked tirelessly to make anchors and analysts look good. Editors pored over copy to make it better. Executives made difficult decisions with heavy consequences.
Consumers of ESPN may not recognize the names, but they were just as familiar with their behind-the-scenes work as it manifested itself into the finished products. In some ways, it feels fitting that these former staffers exit without fanfare and praise. In another way, it feels painfully unfair.
Front-facing talent laid off in April were afforded the opportunity to doff their caps as the public sang their praise. This was, of course, not a joyful victory lap, but somber reflection on accomplished works. Those laid off yesterday will never be feted on this scale, though some are being celebrated by ESPN employees lucky enough to escape the ax.
Departing anchors and big-time writers left with widespread name recognition and fanfare. Those departing yesterday left with only a murmur. And these are the people without agents, without enormous contracts and, sadly, without clearly defined landing places. Outside of ESPN, the Bristol area is not brimming with editorial jobs. The challenges facing so many families going forward are considerable.
These are people who were working their dream job in the most sought-after place in sports. They came to work and did the work every day. Today they didn’t.
Perhaps those who put on their armor and fight the bad fight for ESPN to fail because of perceived politics or for personal gain are happy to see these people go. Perhaps reveling in the pain of others gives a brief endorphin high and re-enforces a world view. If so, it is a hollow, ugly victory.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of lives changed yesterday. The fight for positive morale at ESPN became that much harder. And it happened quietly and off-camera. The revolution is not always televised. Neither is the slow deconstruction.