ESPN Layoffs Suggest Sports Media Industry is Changing

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Abridged from Last Word on Pro Basketball, by Harrison Marcus.

Nearly 100 of ESPN’s most talented media personalities, sports reporters and journalists were laid off yesterday, sending shock waves across the sports world. Among those laid off included Jayson Stark, Ed Werder, Trent Dilfer, Andy Katz, Jane McManus, Ethan Strauss, Jay Crawford, and Calvin Hankins.

Many athletes, coaches, and dedicated ESPN viewers have been upset and perplexed at the layoffs. Golden State Warriors interim head coach Mike Brown addressed the issue during his press conference (see below). The layoff of Strauss in particular makes little sense, considering he primarily covered the Warriors, who are in the middle of one of the greatest stretches of team success in the history of sports.

Consumer Demand Driving Industry Changes

Part of the reason for the layoffs is due to ESPN’s cost-cutting strategy, yet there is a larger story to be told. The landscape of the sports media industry is changing significantly, and consumer demand is the driving force behind it.

The way in which viewers consume sports related media and news is drastically different than in years past. Think about a common way for the average consumer to catch up on sports news. (1) They scroll through their Twitter feed, simply reading a 140-character summary, as opposed to reading entire articles. (2) Memes, GIF’s, and visual displays of information have gained popularity through social media outlets. People no longer have as strong of a desire to read long, thorough, well-researched articles.

Commonly, they prefer to read a ‘quick summary’ of the same information through a creative graphic or minute-long video. Short bursts of information are the new preferred style of sports news for consumers.

Consumers also have begun to prefer online-streaming or highlight clips viewed on personal devices, as opposed to traditional television programs [or the entire match in fact].

Better Technology Gives Consumers More Access

Ever since the technology advancements of computers and especially smart phones, American society as an example, has shifted to one in which people want information as quickly as possible. Ten years ago, you would turn on the radio and patiently wait for the commentator to give an update of the score? In 2017, this is practically unheard of; people simply pull out their smart phone and check an application; whether it be Twitter, Facebook or a dedicated ESPN or Bleacher Report app. The days of waiting until the following morning to check scores and statistics in the newspaper are long gone.

From newspapers; to radio; to television; and now smart phones, the process of obtaining sports news has become quicker and more efficient over time, so the changes of this industry are simply a continuation of that trend. As technology increases, consumers have gained greater access to instant information–and they now lead the direction, and quantity of presenters and journalists required to broadcast that information.

Americans Prefer Boisterous Personalities Over Disciplined Analysis

It’s interesting that one ESPN media member in particular wasn’t laid off – Stephen A. Smith. Smith; who has a $3.5 million salary, has gained the reputation as a sometimes biased-analyst who often takes questionable stances. His passion and exuberant personality shine through, which is appealing to consumers, and this is why ESPN would never dream of laying him off. There may be other reporters who are more talented, yet Smith is more attractive to viewers.

Stephen A. Smith is loud. Smith is a household name. Smith enjoys befriending many high profile athletes and celebrities, thus influencing his analysis. Smith is an unpredictable character. Smith’s exaggerated reactions are often comical–and his reaction to the ESPN layoffs was quick to go viral. What other popular American figure exhibits these same exact traits? Think Donald Trump.

Throughout the Presidential campaign season, Trump often neglected facts and research in favor of providing Americans with what they want to hear. This can be compared to the desire of consumers to view creative sports media graphics or listen to unpredictable, highly entertaining media personalities–instead of reading well-researched, in-depth articles. Instant gratification is preferred over content, which is the way of the world.

Trump captivated the interest of the people. Similarly, many of the writers who were laid off yesterday have superior knowledge of sports, better reporting skills, and more experience than many of the employees who still work for ESPN. There has been a shift in the type of sports media that appeals to consumers, and media organizations across the globe clearly have to adjust.

Future of Consumerism and Sports Media

What does this say about the future of American media consumerism? Is it bad that viewers prioritize more entertainment over better information? At some point will this evolution change course, or will it continue down this path forever? People’s habits continually change, yes, but the organizations need to change is driven by viewer numbers and profit.

There are many questions left unanswered from ESPN’s shift in delivery of the product. How will this impact ESPN’s ratings? How different will the product appear to the average consumer? and will ESPN’s business strategy (possibly) backfire?

It will be interesting to see which companies hire the from the highly talented labor pool that is now available. Maybe the sports-league networks will add significant talent, which would further complicate the sports media industry.

Placing yesterday’s events into the larger context of consumerism and sports media is imperative. Only time will tell if consumer demands continue down the path of digital media, and if the sports media industry is in for more major changes.

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Editorial comment, from Scott Hornell.

The above topic is relative to Rugby Union, in that the media organizations in the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have all experienced change. From staff cuts at Fairfax Media in Australia, to cuts at the BBC and Sky Sports. Reduction in reporting and media presenting staffs has reacted to the change in how viewers consume the product.
The ‘instant gratification’ found in social media and apps is a new, and fast-changing sector. Some sports fans will enjoy keeping up-to-date on their device, while some others now stream visual or audio content while at work. Multi-tasking is a crucial factor, as societies habits and our busier lives change viewing habits.
So too will media organizations change the delivery of the product–not so much anymore a ‘Match of the Day’ but more a half hour catch-up program, which requires less staff and resources. Out-sourcing/sub-contracting are now financially viable options; something that may appear at ESPN or Sky Sports. In the pay-per-view sector, external providers producing a ‘product’ that could one day include test matches, or in-stadium presentations.
And finally, the characters and presenters are similarly changing. Piers Morgan, Stuart Barnes or Martin Devlin, vicarious people today attract viewers for their comments, as much as their content. Morgan has a huge following on social media, so he is an influencer of sports news and topics. Not ‘shock jocks’ but where entertaining shows and presenters will provide colour commentary; beside talented callers like Grant Nesbitt, Ray Warren or John Inverdale.
Yes it is changing, and many will find cuts difficult to stomach, but like print media had to react ‘the times they are a changing’. And sports media in particular adapt and often lead viewer habits.

“Main Photo Credit”

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