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Media Meltdowns

ESPN Layoffs Signal Arrival Of Sports Broadcasting’s Grim Future

an ESPN cameraman stands in front of a basketball court
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

ESPN announced the largest layoffs in the company’s history this morning. 500 positions (200 listed and 300 current employees) will be eliminated. The cuts were announced in an internal memo sent by ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, which was obtained by Front Office Sports. The memo reportedly indicated that departments tasked with the production of live sporting events will be hit the hardest.

These cuts will make what was once seen as a possibly temporary, pandemic-induced reduction in sports production work a permanent one. Having been unable to send crews of producers, camera operators, directors, etc. to sporting events because of COVID-19 restrictions, ESPN began to produce more of its live broadcasts remotely. These layoffs signal that even if the world ever gets back to normal, ESPN plans to stick with these pared-down productions. “ESPN has embraced this whole ‘home kit’ set up thing more than any network,” said one source to Front Office Sports. Defector also spoke a few people who work in the sports broadcasting industry who said it seemed likely that the company will not replace those positions in the future, instead choosing to rely on new automation.

ESPN did not immediately respond to questions about how the loss of these jobs would affect the network’s ability to broadcast sports, or whether they plan to use freelancers or automation to fill in the gaps. These cuts come five years after ESPN eliminated 350 behind-the-camera workers.

“This is extremely disappointing and disheartening news,” Mika Brown, a camera operator in Indianapolis, said. “The quality of their product will suffer and it will not go unnoticed. Automation will never be able to compare to the talented men and women who have so passionately dedicated their lives to this craft.”

As Defector reported earlier this year, freelance sports broadcasters have seen dramatic reductions in work during the pandemic. These layoffs will add more freelancers to a field that is already crowded and has lost hundreds of positions this year alone.

“At every turn over the last 30 to 40 years, whenever there was an opportunity to downsize the workforce at local television stations, the stations have used that to put the screws to their employees,” Fran O’Hern, the co-director of the Broadcast Department for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), told me in September. With cuts this large at a national sports broadcasting company, the bleak future for local television stations and freelancers that sources predicted in September seems to be arriving earlier than expected.

If you are affected by the layoffs at ESPN or have a tip related to this, please email kelsey@defector.com.