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A DEEP CRISIS AT ESPN: LAYOFFS, SCANDAL, CORD-CUTTING AND BAD BLOOD
As if a troubled network didn’t have enough problems — including harassment allegations against a fired executive — a former star (Dan Le Batard) and ex-president (John Skipper) plot to poach talent
ESPN once aired a reality show called “Dream Job,” where broadcasting wannabes vied for a “SportsCenter” anchor gig. Today, the more apt concept would be “Hell Hole.” The network isn’t a happy place for aspiring or even accomplished professionals these days, as tumult inside the campus gates finally reflects the nowhere surroundings of Bristol, Conn.
I used to think a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts was nothing but a time-killing dive. Now it seems like a pretty good hideaway from the angst.
In a fair world, one’s destiny at the network would be tied to skill, service and results. Make me howl. Another round of layoffs, shedding the same blood spilled at other media companies amid a fraught economic climate, will impact hundreds of workers who don’t deserve impending unemployment. Some will be familiar front-facing names. Some will vanish behind the scenes. Some will be bosses from a bloated corporate core. Such is the collateral damage when Disney demands a company-wide chopping of more than 7,000 jobs. This is what happens when 34 million subscribers cancel ESPN in a decade of drastic cord-cutting — leaving only 67 million U.S. homes with the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports, a 33 percent free-fall — as direct-to-consumer streaming initiatives chug along in a new media world.
More to the point, ESPN is slashing headcounts to pay for sports rights. It already has invested almost $3 billion a year, through 2032, for “Monday Night Football” and a future spot in the NFL’s Super Bowl rotation. The Southeastern Conference is making early noises about a renegotiation of its $3-billion, 10-year deal with Disney. Next up is the NBA, a league trying to defend its own perception problems — runaway player empowerment, Ja Morant’s guns and “mental health” issues, load management, loud complaints by Mark Cuban and Chris Paul that game officials aren’t honest in a legal gambling culture — while commissioner Adam Silver tries to triple rights fees from all broadcast partners to $7 billion-plus annually. That means Disney might have to pay another $3.5 billion a year, or more, to remain in the media forefront of pro basketball as NBC, Fox and Amazon weigh bids and Warner Bros. Discovery decides whether to retain the league or give Charles Barkley more time to practice his golf swing.
Journalism? It no longer matters in Bristol. It can’t exist when Big Sports calls the money shots and controls critical editorial content, demanding media partners to avoid damaging bombshells that would hurt league business. Only Don Van Natta Jr. is a prominent investigative sleuth — and I wonder for how much longer — and Jeremy Schaap has been relegated to too many soft features. All of which makes this week’s departure of Rob King all the more suspicious. According to a leak in the New York Post, King was fired as executive editor at large after allegations of social-media harassment were reported to ESPN’s human resources office.
The network isn’t commenting, leaving the story vague. After the report appeared, King didn’t confirm he was fired, offering a differing account on Twitter: “After nearly 20 years with ESPN, I have decided the time is right for me to leave the company. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and friends, and wish the company continued success.” If he was fired, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro needs to say so. He hasn’t, as yet, and the silence makes Pitaro look small and secretive while only exacerbating the internal turmoil. In this day and age, a company cannot let a harassment story hang in mid-air. It’s not fair to King, his accuser or people in the building who deserve the truth.
If anyone at the network still cared about journalism, it was King, a former Philadelphia newspaper editor. He was most responsible for carrying on the pretense of important news-gathering as ESPN drifted away from powerhouse exposes, moving toward serving its league bedfellows. He was, without the title, the executive vice president in charge of journalism.
Which meant he wasn’t a Pitaro Guy. King was a John Skipper Guy, through and through — and when Pitaro was installed atop ESPN after Skipper departed in a 2017 cocaine scandal, King gradually lost the power and influence granted by his previous boss. I never realized the importance of being a network executive’s “Guy” until Skipper, while explaining at a Malibu restaurant why I no longer was a daily regular on the “Around The Horn” debate show, referred to me as a “Shapiro Guy.” I was hired at the network by Mark Shapiro, Skipper’s immediate predecessor, and I was supposed to understand that not having a direct connection to Skipper made me more vulnerable. Unlike, say, Howard Bryant, who very much was a Skipper Guy and maintained his ESPN paycheck for years even after he was charged with domestic assault and battery on his wife and assault and battery on a police officer while their six-year-old son watched outside a Massachusetts pizza parlor.
When he was arrested, Bryant said he had the “support” of his ESPN bosses. It was true, as the Black columnist and commentator reflected Skipper’s plan to bring more “diversity” to the network, a word he would use over sushi in Malibu. King, too, is Black. He was in charge of “SportsCenter” when Skipper launched his ill-fated experiment on the 6 p.m. program, giving the hosting reins to two Black personalities, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, in what some white viewers saw as a brazen display of wokeness and Trump-bashing in the heat of the Colin Kaepernick protest movement.
Jimmy Pitaro is white and has made no public declarations, unlike Skipper, about championing a woke platform. If anything, his reign is the antithesis of Skipper’s. Hill and Smith are long gone. Now King is gone, under mysterious circumstances. And watching it all, while salivating from his Miami Beach base, is Dan Le Batard. The biggest of Skipper Guys, he thrived at ESPN as a multi-platform host thanks to his boss’ lengthy creative leash. When Skipper parted ways with Disney CEO Bob Iger, after claiming a drug dealer extorted him in New York City, Le Batard cried on the air and soon left the network in a huff. He always has been a gifted writer, but Skipper tapped into the broadcast talents of this son of Cuban exile parents, who also fit the diversity paradigm. Together, they formed a company called Meadowlark Media, which still could turn out to be a lemon. To this day, their impact has been minimal beyond Le Batard’s radio show/podcast, which has sold out to gambling slime, taking millions of dollars to promote “free-to-play” DraftKings pools to gullible young bettors. Both partners are diminished in the national media eye.
But that hasn’t stopped them from keeping a periscope on ESPN. Many of their associates through the years — Skipper Guys, Skipper Girls — have been linked to Meadowlark. Pablo Torre jumped earlier this month and eventually is expected to cut all ESPN ties. Mina Kimes might be next. Bomani Jones is doing an HBO show, but when that is canceled, he’ll probably join up. Bryant is there, naturally. When “Pardon The Interruption” eventually fades from old age, don’t be stunned if another Skipper Guy, top producer Erik Rydholm, heads to Meadowlark.
Rob King, too.
See what’s happening here? Skipper and Le Batard are poaching longtime colleagues for their own fiefdom. It will take years, if ever, for Meadowlark to make real impact. ESPN, with lost subscribers and all, still has uber-expensive Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on “Monday Night Football” and still has Stephen A. Smith screaming in the mornings. If this is the NCAA tournament, ESPN is still Alabama and Meadowlark is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
That said, the disruption does impact Bristol. Skipper and Le Batard have journalism backgrounds. If they are smart, they’ll make it an emphasis — and scrap the screwball show, hosted with someone named Stugotz — and attack ESPN in the space where it now fails. A respected newsman, Bob Ley, was smart to get out years ago — as another paragon of sports truth, Bob Costas, was forced from prime time at NBC. ESPN’s idea of newsgathering is turning loose its “insiders,” Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, who are hand-delivered “breaking news” via one-sided relationships with player agents and league personnel. When was the last time Schefter broke a blockbuster with major consequences for the NFL? When was the last time Wojnarowski did so in his NBA coverage? These aren’t journalists. They are entertainers installed to serve the popularity of leagues and pump up daily chat volume.
And if you need a provocative commentary at ESPN? There’s Stephen A., though only Stephen A., who also knows where his bread is buttered and never will attack a big-money, big-influence person. Jerry Jones is a dirty old man. Smith won’t go there, instead accepting a helicopter ride from the owner when he visited Dallas Cowboys headquarters last year. If a team sucks or a player demands a trade? Sure, no one will say it louder than Stephen A., and his bosses won’t care because franchise owners only care when they’re the ones targeted for criticism. Yes, Stephen A. is a corporate sellout for his reported $12 million a year, a company man first and foremost.
The “E” in ESPN always has stood for Entertainment. That’s more obvious than ever as Iger, trying to save his kingdom from unprecedented chaos, eyes an extended alliance with the NBA — the league of showmen and Twitter drama. Iger’s wife, Willow Bay, is dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She might want to have a talk with him about priorities, but it’s futile at this point. “The one that’s looming is the NBA, I know that’s on people’s minds,” Iger said recently. “(It’s) a product that we’ve enjoyed having and hope to continue to enjoy having, because not only its volume, but its quality. ESPN has been selective in the rights that they bought. I’ve had long conversations about this with Jimmy Pitaro. And we’ve got some decisions that we have to make coming up — not anything particularly large, but on a few things, and we’re simply going to have to get more selective.”
If that means whacking employees to pay more for sports properties, which is sad and unnecessary, how about getting back to what ESPN once did well? Remember when it was America’s trusted sports source? To be that again first would require a truce on a bloody battlefield, where everyone will be viewed as human beings, and not as Pitaro Guys and Skipper Guys and, yep, Shapiro Guys.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.