The Bristol Press – ESPN once again finds itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons
BRISTOL – ESPN once again found itself making the news instead of just covering it.
It was first with a series of layoffs that rocked the Bristol-based sports network in recent years. Last week it was a racially-motivated dispute between two high-profile employees that turned from a backstage topic to a live apology. And, more recently, another on-air talent has come under fire for saying the marketing of a Major League Baseball star was hampered by needing the help of a performer to speak. This led to more on-air apologies.
When asked to comment on recent controversies involving the network, ESPN shared an email sent to employees of company president Jimmy Pitaro, who, speaking on the topic of “diversity, inclusion and belonging, ”acknowledged that the company still had a lot of work to do. do.
The memo – sent last Friday following the tense situation between two great on-air talent who allegedly “outraged” many sports network employees – dealt with comments made by an ESPN host and journalist, who is white, who suggested another host and journalist. , who is black, has been given a prestigious assignment based on her race.
“If you need to give her more to do because you feel the pressure from your long-standing record for diversity – which, by the way, I know personally on the female side, go for it. Rachel Nichols, who is best known for her coverage of the NBA, said last July, unaware that her video camera was on. “Just find it somewhere else. You’re not going to find it at my house or take my stuff away.”
Nichols’ comments, which were recorded last July and recently shared with The New York Times, referred to fellow reporter Mariah Taylor, who was chosen to cover the NBA Finals last year on Nichols.
Although Nichols apologized on air for his remarks, the LA Times reported that the only person known to have been sanctioned in the incident was a digital video editor who allegedly admitted showing the recording to Taylor. The Times also reported that the same employee, who is black, has since left ESPN.
Nichols was removed from secondary reporting in the NBA Finals after her comments were leaked, with the company saying the move would keep the coverage’s focus on basketball.
“We respect and recognize that there are a variety of feelings about what happened and the actions we took,” Pitaro wrote in the note. “The details of what happened last year are confidential, nuanced and complicated personnel matters.”
Stephen A. Smith apologized the next day while on air on “First Take”, the show he is best known for co-hosting, for his comments on Angels All-Star Shohei Ohtani, who is Japanese.
When asked to comment on the Smith case, an ESPN spokesperson said on Friday that the company “was letting its personal apologies be the comment.”
In his memo, Pitaro also shared some of the progress he says the company has made regarding the black employee and consumer experience, which was announced a year ago, saying “we have a much better story than what you saw this week “. He also added: “We want to make sure that you are aware of the critical progress that we have made… even though we know that we still have a lot of work to do. ”
Former ESPN employee Jemele Hill, who has had well-documented battles during her time with the network, spoke to the LA Times about the Nichols-Taylor story.
“ESPN has a consistent history of undervaluing black talent,” Hill recently told the newspaper. “It’s not a Rachel versus Maria story. It’s a story about why they didn’t appreciate Maria enough to allow her to take full ownership of the job. ESPN collects black faces, but it seems like when those black faces turn into black voices, that’s a problem.
The arts agency that represents Hill did not respond to a request for comment from The Bristol Press.
Andrew Marchand, whose sports writing responsibilities for The New York Post include ESPN coverage, has covered the Nichols-Taylor situation closely. He recently gave an interview to The Bristol Press to discuss this incident and other network-centric topics.
Marchand, who worked at ESPN from 2007 to 2018 when he joined the Post, admitted that the company’s handling of the comments disclosed by Nichols “did not go well.”
“The idea that you could have this injury and just hope it heals on its own, I guess there’s a chance it would have worked, but it just got infected,” Marchand said. . “There is a racial aspect to the story that is sometimes involved in other situations, but because of Rachel Nichols’ comments, bring that to the forefront of the story, and the implications of New York history Times that there is sort of a divide between management and some ESPN staff, that is also part of it.
Aside from some of the bad publicity that accompanied the backlash from recent incidents, ESPN – while still the dominant driver of sports coverage – has other challenges that include declining pay-TV subscribers and series of layoffs that began in 2013.
Like most large companies during the pandemic, ESPN announced in November that it would lay off around 300 people and cut 200 more open positions. It happened as major sports leagues were shutting down to stop the spread of covid-19. Despite the layoffs, it should be noted that the Sports Business Journal named ESPN the best in sports media last month, highlighting its ability to pivot during the pandemic and navigate the shutdown of live sports globally.
However, the string of layoffs during the pandemic was only the last in the past eight years or so.
In August 2019, ESPN – headquartered on Middle Street in Bristol – announced it would lay off more than 30 employees, most of whom were based in Bristol. In June 2019, the company announced that ESPN Deportes radio would cease broadcasting soon, resulting in the layoff of 10 full-time and 25 part-time employees. Previously, there was the announcement at the end of 2017 of 150 layoffs and, in April 2017, the elimination of 100 positions. In 2015, ESPN laid off 300 employees, which was preceded by another round of layoffs in 2013.
“It had a huge impact on people,” Marchand said. “It’s hard to work in a place where you have layoffs every two years because you feel like the ground is tough under you. And so, it can only hurt morale. ”
At its peak, ESPN had a subscriber base of 100 million in 2011. Since then, that number has declined over the years, with Nielson’s most recent estimate indicating that ESPN is currently present in 83 million homes. This drop in the number of subscribers to the sports network comes as many people are abandoning cable as a whole in favor of streaming services.
“That has been the life of ESPN, which was a brilliant plan from the start and made it the most dominant sports media company in the world,” Marchand said of cable subscribers. “It’s going in the wrong direction now. It is still very profitable. It is still a very good deal. It’s just not crazy in terms of money like it used to be, and the arrow is heading in the wrong direction.
Subscription rates don’t necessarily tell the whole story, however, as ESPN established notable audience and usage brands last weekend, drawing just over 60 million viewers to ESPN networks and ABC, which represented one in three viewers. The company also reported that between last Saturday and Monday, ESPN’s digital reach was the highest since March 20 – the start of March Madness.
“Last weekend was a testament to the return of the sport – period,” said Flora Kelly, ESPN vice president, strategic and branding information. “With our premier and diverse rights portfolio, ESPN is the only brand that reaches out to the large and diverse group of people we call sports fans. Our ability to serve these fans on a variety of platforms allows us to stay with them and meet their athletic needs throughout such a crucial sports weekend. ”
ESPN + GROWING
The two most notable strategies for continuing to make ESPN a hugely profitable business focus on long-term deals with the biggest and most watched sports leagues, as well as launching its own streaming service in 2018. , known as ESPN +.
“They definitely have a plan to be successful in the future, and that centers around ESPN +,” Marchand said. “They’ve been really good at their story of figuring out where the cast is going and being the first or one of the first to get there.”
According to a earnings report from the Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, subscribers to the sports company’s streaming service have grown from around 6.6 million in December 2019 to around 12.1 million in January this year. . A company spokesperson said this week that ESPN + now has around 13.8 million subscribers. The company estimates that ESPN + will have between 20 and 30 million subscribers by the end of fiscal 2024.
One of the challenges with a streaming service focused on sports games and UFC fighting is that league content is essentially rented out, Marchand noted. ESPN’s response to this has been to freeze long-term contracts.
“You’re just renting these sports, so to keep the business going, you’ll have to keep paying these leagues for it,” Marchand said.
Currently, ESPN has agreements with Major League Baseball, NHL, and LaLiga Football League that extend through 2028; an agreement with the PGA Tour until 2030; an agreement with the NFL until 2033; and a contract with the SEC until 2034. The latest addition to these long-term agreements includes exclusive coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which lasts until 2035.
“It might work for them that when you do those 10-year deals, at the end of those contracts, they’re going to be the strongest player in the game and that will kind of just be obvious to them,” Marchand said. “But there is a difference between what they are trying to do and what other streaming sites are doing.”
Disney CEO Bob Chapek touched on the strategy on the Walt Disney Company’s latest earnings conference call.
“Whether it’s an exclusive right or a simulcast right, it’s important that we move forward and use our content that we’ve purchased the rights to in a way that we feel is right. appropriate, again given that distribution flexibility we talked about so much about at the start. of this conversation, ”Chapek said. There are rights constraints that we have that could measure how fast or how fast we are going. And then the existing agreements could also do it. Then, of course, we will only do it if it is profitable for our shareholders. So when the time is right to really hit the gas and go even harder in our DTC for sports platforms, we will. ”
Justin Muszynski can be reached at 860-973-1809 or [email protected]