A play-by-play analysis of what ESPN said about firing 100 on-air personalities


Sports network ESPN dumped 100 of its 1,000 on-air staff yesterday. Why? Based on the company’s statement it has something to do with strategy, but if you can figure out what that strategy is, you’re smarter than me. The statement seems like something from the Russian government published in Pravda — you need to be a Kremlinologist to decode it.

If they wanted to be honest, here’s the statement they could have made:

A thousand on-air staff is just too many people dedicated to analyzing games. Our sports rights fees are rising, subscribers are cutting the cord, but most importantly, most of these ex-athletes and talking heads are just making shit up anyway. I’m sure we can get by with 900 or so.

That’s too honest and straightforward, though, and if there’s one thing that sports analysis is not, it’s straightforward.

In what follows, the words attributed to ESPN come directly from its president, John Skipper, in a message he sent to all staff at ESPN.

A play-by-play analysis of the ESPN statement

Announcer: Welcome to the withoutbullshit.com network. Today we’ll be looking at a classic matchup. On one side is John Skipper, the aptly named President of ESPN. Opposite Skipper are two of our own on-air talents. On play-by-play we have Tolkien Head. And to analyze the writing in more detail we’ll be hearing from our public relations expert Anne Alist. Let’s get started.

John Skipper Message to ESPN Employees

Skipper: ESPN has been actively engaged throughout its history in navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content. Today, we are again focused on a strategic vision that will propel our vast array of networks and services forward.

Tolkein Head: Well, it seems like ESPN’s lead says nothing about letting people go, Anne.

Anne Alist: That’s right, Tolkein. They’ve decided to lead with a vague statement filled with platitudes. “Actively engaged throughout its history in navigating changes in technology and fan behavior” — that’s a classic non-statement that just about any media company could make these days. They’ve set the tone with the weasel-word “vast,” in “vast array of networks and services,” just to get us all in the mood for an explanation that shows how complicated the network’s task is these days. But despite this lame start, Skipper has promised a strategic vision, so it looks like we’re in for an exciting time.

Skipper: A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions.

Alist: That’s tricky. He’s focused on himself rather than the talent he’s about to lay off. He’s thrown out management cliches like “managing change,” “constantly evaluating,” and that all-purpose bullshit word, “utilize.” These are rookie moves — very easy to spot, and they don’t move the ball forward.

Skipper: Our content strategy – primarily illustrated in recent months by melding distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with our biggest sub-brand – still needs to go further, faster…and as always, must be efficient and nimble. Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value . . . 

Head: My head is spinning, Anne. So many words: personality-driven, efficient, nimble, dynamic, versatility, value . . . What’s he getting at, Ann?

Alist: Nothing.

Head: Nothing?

Alist: Take a close look, Tolkien. Strategy going further, faster, but efficient and nimble? That’s another meaningless platitude. Same with versatility and value. He’s just throwing adjectives around to confuse the audience. We got promised a strategy, but we’re still getting platitudes.

Head: Wait, theres’s more coming on this.

Skipper: . . . 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. A limited number of other positions will also be affected and a handful of new jobs will be posted to fill various needs.

Head: Wait a minute, folks. Something is happening up here in Connecticut.

Alist: You’ve spotted it, Tolkien. The key phrases here are “necessary to meet those demands” and “implement changes in our talent lineup.” Sounds like they’re admitting they’re going to sack some folks, and it could be some pretty big names.

Head: But why? What’s his reasoning?

Alist: That’s a bit harder to figure out, Tolkien. He’s just using those same platitudes to justify this move.

Head: How big of a deal is this?

Alist: Well, my other sources tell me it’s a 100 people including big names like Jayson Stark and Trent Dilfer. But Skipper is behaving like no one will know this. I think that’s an error. The lack of specifics makes him look weak. And he had to call it “challenging,” once again putting the emphasis on his own decision process rather than the people losing their jobs. That’s gonna make it hard for the team to believe in their “Skipper” down the line.

Head: Ease off on the puns there, Anne. Wait a second, I think we’re going to get an apology. Let’s listen in.

Skipper: These decisions impact talented people who have done great work for our company. I would like to thank all of them for their efforts and their many contributions to ESPN.

Alist: That’s it? “Talented people,” “great work,” and a thank you? After that confused set of platitudes about strategy, surely he’s going to apologize.

Head: Nope. No apology. And I don’t think we’re going to get one, Anne.

Skipper: Our objective in all we do is to best serve fans and their changing consumption habits while still maintaining an unparalleled and diverse talent roster that resonates with fans across all our platforms. We will continue to foster creativity and investment in the products and resources necessary to embrace the opportunities that lie ahead.

Alist: Jeeze, he’s back to the platitudes, the weasel words, and the jargon. “Serve fans and their changing consumption habits,” “unparalleled and diverse talent roster,” and “foster creativity.” And “platforms” — that’s classic jargon. He’s wrapped himself in it!

Head: Can you see what the strategy actually is, Anne?

Alist: Nope, that’s still shrouded in mystery. And he’s made an unforced error. He said “the products and resources necessary to embrace the opportunities that lie ahead,” but we still have no idea what those opportunities are, and that’s what strategy is all about.

Skipper: Thank you as always for your continuing dedication to our work.

Head: Well, that sounds like an ending. What’s your final analysis, Anne?

Alist: Frankly, I’m very disappointed. Imagine if you were a staffer at ESPN, Tolkien. They talk about strategy, but they don’t explain what it is. They’re dumping 100 people, but there’s no rationale for who and why. Skipper hasn’t been honest with his team, and now they have to move forward with all this uncertainty in the locker room. This was a pathetic, pathetic statement and it makes me wonder if ESPN has heart and brains to actually figure out how to get moving in the right direction. If I were on that team, I’d be totally demoralized.

Head: Wow. At least somebody here is being honest. Thanks, Anne.

Announcer: Well, that’s it from the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. And we’ll be back with Tolkien Head and Anne Alist the next time a corporation makes a muddled statement. And for all of us here at withoutbullshit.com, remember to be bold, be clear, and don’t be boring.


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