First appeared in BOXSCORE
By Aron Solomon
ESPN, Inc. is a sports media company that was founded in 1979 by Bill Rasmussen, his son Scott Rasmussen, and Ed Egan. The company’s name stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. ESPN started as a cable television network that broadcast sports events and news.
History is showing that ESPN’s downfall slowly began forty years ago when, in 1984, ABC television network purchased a controlling stake in the company.
As Attorney Tim George observed: “ABC later merged with Capital Cities Communications, and the combined company was purchased by The Walt Disney Company in 1995. Once ESPN was part of Disney it was, from a legal perspective, simply one more asset for Disney to use in a larger strategic puzzle.”
The acquisition of ESPN by Disney was part of a larger deal that saw Disney acquire Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion. This gave Disney an 80% interest in ESPN and full control of its operations which was the beginning of ESPN’s creative demise.
ESPN’s acquisition by Disney has had a significant impact on both companies. According to an analysis published by Barron’s Magazine in February 2008, ESPN “is probably worth more than 40% of Disney’s entire value… based on prevailing cash-flow multiples in the industry”
So what’s happening now at ESPN is the Great Reduction, a crash diet intended to change the profile of the business.
ESPN began a wave of layoffs on Monday, April 24th, 2023, as part of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s plan to cut 7,000 jobs across the company.
The layoffs are happening in three rounds for several reasons. Some departments have needed more time to figure out exactly how they can produce the same work with fewer people. Another issue is that ESPN is international and some countries have different labor laws.
The first round of layoffs did not include “talent,” which refers to on-air personalities in front of the camera. Instead, some of ESPN’s most loyal and long-serving employees were let go, a sign that ESPN was simply beginning cuts, with many more to come.
A round of cuts involving on-air talent will happen over the summer via contracts not being renewed, buyouts or cuts. It is not expected to resemble what happened in April of 2017 when reporters and hosts were also laid off.
With all of this going on, rather than simply laying low and hoping too few people noticed, ESPN just went out and made a ridiculous hire.
Pat McAfee, a former All-Pro punter for the Indianapolis Colts, is joining ESPN as part of a multi-year agreement. The Pat McAfee Show will air live weekdays simultaneously on ESPN, ESPN+, and ESPN’s YouTube channel.
In addition to hosting the daily show, McAfee will contribute to ESPN digital and social platforms. McAfee will also continue his analyst role on ESPN’s College GameDay and host alternate broadcasts of ESPN’s college football telecasts
ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement that Pat is a proven talent and that he and his team have built The Pat McAfee Show into one of the most engaging programs in sports and all of media.
Yet even if this is true, the optics for the McAfee hiring couldn’t be worse.
According to The Athletic, Pat McAfee is in the second year of a four-year, $120 million contract with Fan Duel. While the exact amount that ESPN will pay Pat McAfee has not been disclosed, Deadspin reported that McAfee might be the highest-paid talent at ESPN, which would mean that he will likely be paid somewhere between $12-$17 million per year.
Disney is desperately in search of a viable demographic for ESPN, while they are flailing and failing. I have no idea who or what that demographic might be because I used to think it was me.
But I am anything but a Pat McAfee fan. I think his work appeals to the lowest common denominator in sports. What’s worse is that I find McAfee to be excruciatingly boring.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun to feel the same way about many of ESPN’s hosts and programs. I still love sports and follow many sports every day. I just find what I see on ESPN to be unpalatable.
I can’t be alone in this and if I’m not, then Disney is going to continue to push and pull ESPN in so many directions that the end result might not be recognizable. This certainly seems to be the direction things are heading today.
For many who have been loyal to ESPN over the years, bringing on Pat McAfee now makes no sense. Social media is full of stories of the loyal ESPN team members who have been fired over the past weeks. Spending well over $10 million per year on one sports talk celebrity at this point is yet one more clear marker that once-great ESPN has lost the thread.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.