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ESPN will cut 100 on-air personalities today

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

ESPN will cut more than 100 employees today, Yahoo Finance has learned.

That number is much bigger than the 40-50 that was initially reported. ESPN aims to notify all of the people today, if it can do so.

It has been widely reported for weeks that big cuts are coming to ESPN—so widely reported, and dissected, and gossiped about, in fact, that ESPN moved up its schedule and is notifying people earlier than it originally planned.

The 100 people getting cut are all “on-air talent,” a label ESPN uses for TV personalities, radio hosts, and writers who regularly appear on TV and radio. (ESPN says it has 1,000 such people, prior to these cuts.)

In addition to those 100, a “limited number of other positions will also be affected,” according to a note sent to all employees on Wednesday morning from ESPN president John Skipper.

A source tells Yahoo Finance the number of non-talent getting cut is indeed a “very limited” number, but nonetheless, the number is on top of the 100 on-air talents.

In his companywide memo, posted publicly, Skipper frames the cuts around a shifting content strategy. ESPN’s content strategy, he writes, “still needs to go further, faster… and as always, must be efficient and nimble. Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands. We will implement changes in our talent lineup this week.”

The company also posted a public statement on its content strategy to its press page. The statement says that ESPN’s “content is evolving,” and that, “given how fans’ habits are changing, our focus continues to be providing high-quality, distinctive content at any minute of the day on any screen.”

As examples of success in its current strategy, the statement touts: the midnight SportsCenter hosted by Scott Van Pelt; the new 6pm SportsCenter (“The Six”) hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith; the ESPN app, with “increased personalization”; and “numerous examples this year of ESPN’s multi-screen approach around big events” such as the College Football Playoff Championship and fantasy football.

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ESPN also says in the statement that in May it will relaunch “two of our biggest journalism brands,” the shows Outside the Lines and E:60, with a “larger presence digitally, socially and across all our screens.”

ESPN’s subscriber numbers have dropped steadily, weighing on parent company Disney, forcing a new round of cost-cutting. When Disney demands cuts, ESPN can make those cuts however it chooses.

ESPN had major layoffs in 2015, as it did two years before that, in 2013. Both times, it cut around 300 people. This time around, the network reportedly sought to cut tens of millions of dollars, and decided that ridding itself of big expensive contracts was the way to do it.

ESPN’s “First Take.” (Philly.com)

As ESPN’s content strategy evolves and it looks to reach consumers on platforms other than traditional cable, it expects more from its on-air people than ever before. A source at ESPN frames the cuts this way: “We are focusing on people that can be versatile and appear cross-platform. If you’re making X, are you justifying that salary? It’s all about versatility.” Translation: old-school veterans that appear only on one platform, and don’t do much else, are the ones in trouble.

Of course, the problems ESPN faces are not exclusive to ESPN. It’s not news to anyone that media is a struggling business these days—print, broadcast, and digital. But sports television is especially brutal right now: programming costs keep rising, while viewership is falling. Something has to give.

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ESPN’s future can brighten if it innovates on the digital side, and it is already taking public steps to do so. The “worldwide leader” now offers its channels on five different OTT (over-the-top) streaming services: Sling TV (from DISH), Sony PlayStation Vue, AT&T DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, and Hulu’s forthcoming skinny bundle.

That’s five different OTT services that can deliver your ESPN fix: Sling, Vue, DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, and Hulu’s forthcoming skinny bundle. It also has plans to offer its own OTT service a la HBO Now, built by BAM Tech, the spun-off video business of Major League Baseball. Disney spent $1 billion last year to get a 33% ownership stake in BAM Tech.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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