ESPN plans to trim its on-air talent roster

ESPN, the sports media giant grappling with the continued decline in cable subscribers, confirmed Monday that it will make cuts to its roster of on-air talent this year.

The Walt Disney Co. unit said there will be an unspecified reduction in the 1,000 employees who currently perform on TV, radio and podcasts as the sports broadcaster adapts to changing consumer habits. The size of the reduction, which is expected in June, has yet to be determined.

“Today's fans consume content in many different ways and we continuously look at the content we create and how we present it,” the company said in a statement. “Inevitably that informs how we utilize our talent. ESPN will continue to have a roster of talent that is unequaled in sports and present the highest quality sports coverage in the business.”

The plan for the cuts was first reported by SI.com.

ESPN insiders not authorized to comment publicly say that hiring continues at the company in other areas, especially as it continues to develop digital properties aimed to reach consumers who are not subscribing to the traditional cable network.

Although Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN remains the leading sports network and a highly profitable unit of Disney, the trend among younger consumers to do without cable and satellite subscriptions poses a long-term threat to its business. ESPN commands an industry high of about $7 a month for each cable and satellite subscriber that receives its channels.

That revenue goes away whenever a consumer decides to do without a video subscription and get TV programming online through a broadband connection. ESPN has lost more than 9 million subscribers since 2013, according to Nielsen data.

Although advertising demand has been strong for live programming that ESPN offers, its most expensive property — “NFL Monday Night Football” — saw a ratings decline of 11% last season. The lower ratings can affect how much the games can take in with advance ad sales next season. ESPN pays $1.9 billion a year for the rights to the games.

A talent agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity said ESPN has not revealed the extent of the cuts. But the agent believes it’s likely to target experienced mid-level reporters and commentators who earn higher salaries. When a network makes cuts to on-air talent, it is usually aimed at a specific cost number, rather than a head count.

The company has recently cut game analysts John Kruk, Ray Lewis and Cris Carter from its roster. Veteran announcer Brent Musburger recently retired from the network while another long-timer, Chris Berman, has taken a reduced role at a lower salary.

ESPN has been signing some younger on-air names to multiyear contracts. “Highly Questionable” co-host Bomani Jones, Mike Greenberg, and the new 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” team Michael Smith and Jemele Hill have signed deals this year. But contracts do not guarantee that any name will be safe from the cuts.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

Ray Lewis Walt Disney Co. ESPN

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