Some of the latest ESPN layoffs are part of an effort to save their dying flagship program -- SportsCenter

ESPN announced their latest round of layoffs on Wednesday morning with 100 employees expected to lose their job, including dozens of on-air personalities.

In the immediate aftermath, accusations began to fly as to why the almighty ESPN has to lay off employees.

“It’s because of their liberal politics! It’s killing their ratings!” — This has nothing to do with it. ESPN’s ratings are as strong as ever.

“It’s because they are a dying brand that is losing millions of subscribers!”  — this is getting closer to the truth, but is still way off. ESPN is not dying. Not even close.

ESPN is losing millions of subscribers. By our last count, ESPN has lost 12 million subscribers in the last six years, a drop of about 12%, and there is no sign yet that the drop is slowing down.

But the problem is much more complicated than that and at the same time, it is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Not all of those subscribers are ESPN viewers. In fact, it is a safe bet that most of them were not ESPN viewers. Rather, they were simply cable cord-cutters who no longer wanted to pay money each month for networks they don’t watch — including $US7.21 each month for ESPN alone and $US9.06 each month for the ESPN family of networks.

In other words, the loss of subscribers hurts subscription revenue, but it won’t impact advertising revenue because ratings for ESPN’s live sports are as strong as ever. 

So then, why the latest layoffs? The answer is two-fold: ESPN is modernising their business model by becoming more digital and they are trying to save “SportsCenter.” The former is something every media company is doing and the latter is something that has been a huge problem at ESPN for years.

This is something that was first reported by Jim Miller, author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” and later confirmed by ESPN President John Skipper.

It is difficult to understate how important SportsCenter was for ESPN in the years before the internet made everything more accessible. SportsCenter was must-watch TV for any sports fan. But nowadays, ratings for the show have fallen, and ESPN is struggling to keep it relevant.

A year ago, one former ESPNer and SportsCenter anchor, Keith Olbermann, was a guest on “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” hosted by another former ESPNer. Simmons asked Olbermann how ESPN can save SportsCenter, noting that because of social media and mobile devices, a show based on highlights is no longer needed.

From Olbermann:

“[Former ESPN executive editor] John Walsh said, I think this was 1993, ‘You know, we have done all sorts of marketing and research and no matter what happens to ESPN, as long as we have SportsCenter and it is a success, we will be dominant in this field no matter what competition arises. Our research indicates that our fans will stick with us if we lose the NFL contract and they will stay with us if we lose this personality, as long as we have SportsCenter and it is accurate and well done, we will be dominant in this field.’ And it’s not true anymore, because it can’t be the centrepiece of the operations for the reasons we already alluded to. But they clearly, and I think you would agree with me, they don’t know that. And all attempts to change it are predicated on the idea that it can be what it was, two years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago when Dan [Patrick] and I did it. And it can’t.”

Well, in the year since that podcast, it would seem that ESPN finally got the memo — SportsCenter is no longer a success and that may be threatening their dominance to a small degree, at least outside of live sports.

As a result, quietly, in some respects, ESPN has been rebranding most of their SportsCenter shows. Rather than have one entity that airs all day long, they now have a family of SportsCenters, each with its own personality and spin.

Maybe more importantly, SportsCenter is no longer just a highlights show. They are now something more akin to a talk show. Highlights have become an afterthought in many cases and several of the shows even have new names.

There is “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt,” hosted by SportsCenter veteran SVP. This SportsCenter airs most weeknights at midnight, typically immediately after some live sporting event.

There is “SC6,” hosted by sports talk veterans Michael Smith and Jamele Hill. As the name implies, this is the other legacy spot for SportsCenter, weeknights at 6:00 pm, which leads into the evening’s sporting events.

But maybe the biggest change is the one that hasn’t happened yet, but has been heavily rumoured for months  — a new morning SportsCenter that will be hosted by Mike Greenberg of “Mike & Mike.”

If the rumours are to be believed, this show will be the biggest change yet. Instead of highlights, this SportsCenter will become something much more like “Good Morning America” or maybe “Live with Kelly.” That is, a traditional morning talk show, with some traditional SportsCenter elements sprinkled in. 

From Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated:

“ESPN executives are moving forward with the plan to shift Mike Greenberg — one half of the long-running Mike & Mike radio show on ESPN Radio — into a new role as the lead host of a television show that would air in the mornings on ESPN. The new show will have elements of SportsCenter — which currently airs at that time — as well as a traditional morning show. It is expected to be based in New York City. The new program would put an end to end to Greenberg’s on-air partnership with Mike Golic, which began in October 1998.”

The Sporting News later reported that Sage Steele, the former host of “NBA Countdown,”would be moving to an AM show on ESPN, leading to speculation that she would be part of what some have dubbed “Greeny and Friends.”

Even this show still has elements of the problems put forth by Olbermann. That is, ESPN is trying desperately to move these shows forward and attract a new audience and yet they are still living in the past with “elements” of traditional SportsCenters.

In other words, ESPN is trying to move forward and stay in the past at the same time. Only time will tell if it works this time.

In the meantime, this rebranding means a lot of familiar faces will lose their jobs as the faces of SportsCenter change and it would seem that these changes have been in the works for months.

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