2018 Brings Changes For ESPN
In homes and offices around the country this week, millions are changing calendars, tossing out 2017 models and unveiling new 2018 editions. Implicit in those changes is a hope that the new set of 365 days brings an improvement to the previous 365.
There are few places in sports where the changing of the calendar will have more import in 2018, figuratively and literally, than at ESPN, where transformation is the word.
The winds of change are blowing at hurricane force through the halls of the Worldwide Leader, which starts the year not only looking for a leader, but also seeking top talent for its NFL and baseball on-air operations while dramatically remaking its radio franchise.
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The new year already begins with ESPN in the midst of a significant downsizing that saw the company whack more 250 employees from its ranks in 2017.
Rest assured, ESPN is still the unquestioned king of all sports media, made even more so by parent company Disney’s December 14 purchase of big chunks of 21st Century Fox, a deal worth $52 billion.
Though most media attention of the sale has focused on “The Simpsons,” the film studio and some cable television channels, the deal also involves a group of regional sports channels.
Those channels air a considerable amount of local baseball, basketball and hockey broadcasts, meaning a lot of the nation (but not Baltimore and Washington) will get its daily NBA, MLB and NHL coverage from ESPN.
But that wasn’t the biggest news of the month from ESPN’s Bristol headquarters. That came four days after the Fox sale, when company president John Skipper announced his immediate departure from the helm, citing a substance addiction problem.
The announcement caught everyone by surprise since Skipper, 61, signed a contract extension earlier in the year and had just addressed the company the day before the Fox sale and gave no indication that he would be leaving.
Skipper, who had been president for nearly five years, was instrumental in pushing ESPN to move forward in the digital age, overseeing the creation of the Undefeated, a website that examines the crossroads of race, culture and sports, as well as the creation of daily “SportsCenter” newscasts on the Snapchat platform.
Skipper, who is widely admired, was at the helm when the company re-upped deals with the NFL, the NBA and MLB that extend into the next decade.
Skipper, who will be replaced in the short term by one of his predecessors, George Bodenheimer, has also been a decided champion of diversity and upgrading ESPN’s soccer presence.
However, ESPN has hemorrhaged viewers during Skipper’s tenure, leading some, including longtime ESPN observer James Andrew Miller, to speculate that Skipper was pushed out by senior Disney management.
Whomever succeeds Skipper in the long term will immediately have critical on-air decisions to deal with, including who will handle play-by-play duties on “Sunday Night Baseball.”
The new leader may also have to preside over choosing the replacement to Jon Gruden in the “Monday Night Football” booth, if, as speculated, Gruden leaves his $6.5 million analyst gig to return to coaching for an annual $10 million slot with Oakland.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s radio operations are undergoing massive changes in virtually all day parts, led by the new “Golic and Wingo” morning show.
“Golic and Wingo,” with former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic and NFL studio host Trey Wingo, launched in November and is the successor to the long-running “Mike and Mike,” which featured Golic and Mike Greenberg, who is slated to host a morning show on ESPN this spring.
“Golic and Wingo,” which also features Golic’s son, Mike Jr., isn’t appreciably different than “Mike and Mike,” save for an obnoxious, trombone-infused theme song and Wingo’s unwillingness to insert himself into every moment of the show, even over Golic and their guests.
The new show is a representation of a nearly complete overhaul of the lineup, with longtime host Ryen [cq] Russillo leaving the company to be replaced by bloviator Stephen A. Smith in a midday slot. Will Cain, who has been a staple on some of ESPN’s squawk shows, is getting a late afternoon show.
Cain, who is an attorney, is a conservative, a status the company can present to its critics who contend that ESPN has drifted leftward politically.
Amid reports that ESPN has lost 13 million subscribers in the past six years, the channel can rely on its faithful: big events.
Ratings for Monday’s college football semifinals were up 39 and 10 percent from last year and the telecasts were seen in more than 20 million homes.