It probably could’ve happened a few years ago, maybe longer, but in the end, it always happens. Successful organizations can’t keep their core talent forever and such is the case today with ESPN. The defections are vast and seem to be coming with more regularity, this on the heels of Disney reporting earlier in the week that the company missed its earnings projections for the quarter for the first time in five years, blaming reduced advertising and a loss of subscriptions at ESPN for the results.
Bill Simmons, perhaps the most compelling sports personality on ESPN flew the coop for HBO and while some will argue he wasn’t worth the dough, others call ESPN crazy for letting him go. Keith Olbermann’s nightly show was canceled. Colin Cowherd shuffled off to LaLa land to join Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports Radio and most recently Mike Tirico, one of the most versatile announcers on TV on any network, shed his ESPN stripes for NBC. The network is making some changes on its own as well. This week, it overhauled its NFL coverage by letting Ray Lewis and Cris Carter go. Keyshawn Johnson and Mike Ditka were already done, and rumors continue to fly about Trent Dilfer, who may be heading out of Bristol as well.
So why all the change? On the one hand, the NFL programming changes make sense. Every successful entity needs to constantly evaluate its personnel to determine whether or not change is necessary and over time, it almost always is. You’ll get no argument from me that ESPN is doing the right thing in dropping “fall guy” Cris Carter and Ray Lewis. Keyshawn and Ditka weren’t key cogs in the wheel and their departures won’t make any difference in my opinion. Charles Woodson and Randy Moss (assuming his deal gets done) will be a welcome change to Sunday’s in the fall. And as much as I love Mike Tirico (full candor we went to Syracuse together), Sean McDonough will be tremendous as his replacement on MNF. This is responsible managing at its core. The network took a look at this area of their programming and decided it needed a fresh coat of paint. Perfectly understandable and frankly, I might even watch the show now that Ray Ray is gone, but I doubt it. Pregame shows are beyond boring. That said, I applaud the suits who made the call because it’s being done for the right reasons.
On the other hand, personality conflicts and big money are at the root of some of these other defections. Bill Simmons crushed Roger Goodell, called him a liar and eviscerated him in one of his podcasts last year. Simmons dared the network to suspend him, it did, and the chatter began about whether his contract would be renewed. Clearly, there were issues between the sides before Simmons made those comments, and the subsequent fallout only expedited his dismissal. Later in the year, Simmons was at it again, calling out Goodell while referencing the Wells Report, and the next day he was done. Simmons took aim at a core partner of the network, a partner that ESPN has invested billions of dollars with and the reality is that Skipper (ESPN President John Skipper) valued his business relationship with the league over that of one of his top talent. No individual is bigger than the team, and that’s the card Skipper played. I’d have held out. Simmons is so far ahead of the game in terms of content creation and distribution that he’d have continued to have a major impact on ESPN’s audience for years to come.
Cowherd got himself in hot water when he talked about the complexity of major league baseball and inferred that Dominican players might not be able to “keep up” because of their country’s educational resources. A cringe worthy comment for sure, and MLB took major issue with it even though he clarified it a day later with an apology. Ultimately, ESPN dropped both Simmons and Cowherd like hot potatoes because of the heat they got from the leagues.
Sure, there was talk about the money having a lot to do with it and I’m sure it did, but I bet you didn’t know that the network brings in roughly $6 billion a year from cable fees. Six billion! That’s before they sell one ad. Money, in my opinion, was not the problem. The problem was the decision makers didn’t want to stand up for these guys anymore and like Curt Schilling found out, if your bosses don’t have your back, it’s lights out. To be fair, Cowherd had already worked out a deal with Fox before his situation occurred, but his departure was expedited by the networks’ refusal to stand behind him in the wake of his comments.
The reality that the landscape is far different today than it was even five years ago and ESPN, as big as it is, simply won’t be able to hold on to their top talent all the time. They will have to pick and choose who to fight for. When Fox Sports is throwing around money like drunken sailors in Thailand, certain people will go for the big bucks. Why else would a marginal talent like Skip Bayless get a deal for almost $10 million dollars?
I’m sure that folks around here aren’t crying for ESPN after it’s horrendously biased coverage of Deflategate, but the consistent changes that have taken place over these last few months are certainly eye opening, and if ESPN wants to remain the most powerful brand in sports, they’re going to have to do more than pony up the dough.