The ESPN cuts and the despair of a changing landscape
ESPN is the peak. Was the peak? I don’t know anymore. But coming out of college, I knew ESPN was where the best sports reporters in the country lived the good life. Graduates could name which alumni made it to the top, so we could claim them as our own. For me, it was Cindy Brunson. She went from Washington State University to Spokane to Portland to the Worldwide Leader in Sports. I looked at her path with envy.
ESPN was always on, always cool, always the destination. I wondered if my career was anything to speak of if ESPN wasn’t a part of it.
My career may have ended the moment I gave up my job at SNY in New York City to move west for love. It was time to reshuffle priorities though, the personal over the professional. On my way out of SNY, I got to cover the Olympic Games in Rio. I was high with ambition. Few people have a resume like mine.
I laid the groundwork months in advance for my move, meeting with Pac-12 Network and Comcast Bay Area. I freelance for Pac-12 now, which is rewarding but infrequent. Like…scraping together rent infrequent. I’ve done my best to hide the struggle from friends. Anytime I get an assignment, I blast out pictures on social media to keep up the façade. Now I understand why other freelancers self-promote so much. This hustle is hard.
I remember the news director at Comcast Bay Area saying, “We like you, but we don’t have anything open right now.” That’s a nice compliment paired with a dose of defeat. The news director warned me his shop was facing budget cuts. Not long after, I learned the news director was laid off. The ax was chopping up.
I’ve been scrambling for gigs for eight months and I don’t know what to do. My identity feels cratered. Do I introduce myself as a sports reporter? Or a former sports reporter? I’m not ready to put myself in past tense.
When the news dropped in April that ESPN laid off about 100 people, there was plenty of commentary about why the Worldwide Leader was wounded. The smartest commentary pointed out that viewers were cutting the cord. Less cable subscribers means less revenue. In addition, according to the NY Times, ESPN paid more than 15 billion dollars to secure NFL rights for ten years. The network also paid 12 billion to show NBA games for nine years. That’s an incredible about of money to invest in properties while the network is hemorrhaging viewers.
Viewers were leaving SNY too. At every staff meeting, subscribers were a topic. There, on a projection screen, was a line graph trending down, followed by “don’t worry” from the network’s president.
It was easier not to worry. At my most cynical, I told myself I’d be the first rat off this sinking ship. I’d go on my own terms. For love! To take a risk on myself! I gave myself good pep talks. I’d find something. The landscape was clearly changing, but me? I’d be fine.
I haven’t been secure for eight months. Some days I wake up ready to be a go get ’em machine, making calls, shooting emails, staying in the conversation with old colleagues on twitter. Other days, I have crying jags. My life feels like a pendulum that swings from confidence to despair.
I look up my horoscope sometimes, like the answers are in there. I started praying.
I’m applying for communications jobs outside of sports and I’ve been rejected for every one. About half the time, I believe what I’m writing in cover letters. Whatever dressed up version of: I want to apply my foundation in story-telling and presentation to promote Brand X in a memorable way.
I don’t like writing cover letters for a future that doesn’t feel like mine. I want my identity back, the one where I had a newsroom and colleagues and debates and jokes and esteem and a TV on my desk set to SportsCenter and postgame drinks. I want my old paycheck. Most importantly, I want my old purpose. I don’t know who I am without sports. I don’t want to be past tense.
ESPN laid off people who wrote the stories of Super Bowls, World Series, Stanley Cups. These reporters shaped the narratives of the greatest moments in sports history. They’re getting their share of true compliments about how they were the best in the industry.
I wonder how compliments sound to the reporters who reached the top, only to get the severed-head version of goodbye.
I never reached ESPN. I sniffed the lunch room once when I went to Bristol to cover the WNBA draft. Visiting ESPN’s campus was something I called home about. It was special.
ESPN is the giant. When the giant crumbles, it feels like the whole industry is turning into dust.
A couple friends were among the ESPN cuts. I don’t have any words of comfort, it’s embarrassing. I’ve been watching other people leave encouraging messages: You’re so talented, you’ll land on your feet! You’re the gold standard for reporting, you’ll get scooped up!
Some of those words are true.
The reporters ESPN laid off are good at their jobs. I am (was?) good at my job. It doesn’t matter. I’ll think about that in the checkout line at the grocery store. I’m the newest cashier.