Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, John Saunders, and Stuart Scott are some of the big names who worked for ESPN over the years. However, none carried the credibility with viewers than Bob Ley developed in his four decades with the cable sports giant.
That’s why Ley’s reaction to the latest developments at ESPN became headline-worthy the moment he unloaded on his former employer.
ESPN has announced more job cuts
Walt Disney Co. shares closed almost 1.5% higher on Wall Street following the announcement by ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro that the cable sports behemoth is laying off approximately 300 employees and removing another 200 open positions from the books. That represents more than 7% of ESPN’s worldwide staff of about 6,500. The growth had been remarkable from the days when Bob Ley and a handful of others went on the air from Bristol, Connecticut, in September 1979 in makeshift studios.
Disney has announced job cuts in its units since the start of the pandemic, and it was ESPN’s turn this time. Most of the cuts are expected to be from the production and administrative ranks, but word has started to filter out about some well-known names. College football writer Ivan Maisel, an 18-year ESPN veteran, said on Twitter that his contract will not be extended beyond Jan. 31.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has cost ESPN millions in lost advertising related to the NBA, Major League Baseball, and college sports, the network has deeper issues that won’t go away when the virus does. ESPN commands the highest per-subscriber rate from cable and satellite TV systems. Every time a customer cuts the cord, it costs ESPN more than $100 a year in revenue.
ESPN has started changing its business model to prioritize direct-to-consumer products like subscriptions to ESPN+, USA Today reported, but it needs to maintain a strong menu of broadcast offerings.
It’s widely speculated that Disney is cutting costs now to prepare a bid for more than just retaining its Monday Night Football package with the NFL. That additional tab would run into billions of dollars over a four- or five-year contract.
Retired anchor Bob Ley rips into ESPN‘s parent
Bob Ley was part of the original ESPN on-air staff in September 1979 and went on to a four-decade career anchoring SportsCenter, serving as the lead on soccer telecasts, and anchoring the acclaimed Outside the Lines that featured some of the best journalism and investigative work in all of cable and broadcast sports.
Ley took an indefinite sabbatical in October 2018. Accolades and tributes poured in when he retired in June of the following year.
“From the day he started to almost 40 years later now, Bob Ley has been our conscience,” Chris Berman said in 2018.
That’s why what Ley said on Nov. 5, 2020, made immediate waves in the industry.
“Trying to remain objective and unemotional as I learn of the @espn team members laid off today,” Ley wrote on Twitter. “Not possible. Not as I see countless decades of journalistic experience, and expertise jettisoned. Just when we need it most. Enjoy the DIS stock price and your NFL football.”
Disney stock hit its current 52-week low of $79.07 in mid-March as the pandemic started to grip the country, but the price has since climbed to $126.96 on Nov. 5. Ley’s reference to NFL football alludes to the latest cuts being a means to raise money for contract negotiations with the league.
Other changes may be on the horizon
ESPN has to maintain a year-round schedule of live sports to remain relevant, but that’s become increasingly difficult with rights fees escalating every time a pro or college contract comes up for renewal in an era in which the number of subscribers has declined substantially.
The New York Post reported that ESPN pays $2 billion a year for its Monday Night Football package. Taking a piece of the Sunday or Thursday schedules could be a pathway to more playoff games and joining the rotation for the Super Bowl.
Separately, ESPN reportedly wants to extend its MLB contract. In order to keep the cost manageable, the network reportedly wants to sacrifice Monday and Wednesday telecasts in the first half of the season to drop its number of games from approximately 100 to 75.