ESPN? More Like ES-P-U

No one has accused the Walt Disney Company of being particularly sensitive about their employees, especially in the current challenging economic times all media companies find themselves in.  And to be fair, they had hinted at the potentially bad news that was awaiting a number of familiar faces that eventually came down in a series of tone-deaf tricklings on Friday that DEADLINE’s Tom Tapp somberly recapped:

On the same day ESPN ran special extended coverage of player comings and goings during NBA Free Agency, about 20 of the network’s top on-air talent found out they would be on the move, as well.

A person familiar with the cutbacks told Deadline they are unrelated to the multi-round Disney layoffs implemented in recent months. The source indicated that many of those affected by the new cuts have contracts beyond June 30 and will be paid out accordingly, but parting ways will enable ESPN to avoid wider layoffs.

Here is the list of those reported to be departing, some of whom had been previously announced:

Jeff Van Gundy

Jalen Rose

Keyshawn Johnson

Max Kellerman

Suzy Kolber

Chris Chelios

Matt Hasselbeck

Steve Young

Rob Ninkovich

Neil Everett

Ashley Brewer

Joon Lee

LaPhonso Ellis

Todd McShay

Jordan Cornette

Jason Fitz

David Pollack

Reports had been widely circulating that there were “no sacred cows”.  This was a freaking slaughterhouse.

I’ll readily admit a few of the names were more emotionally triggering to me than others.  Suzy Kolber, for one.  Yes, when she first appeared on the ambitious “MTV Sports” offshoot The Deuce (aka ESPN2) in the mid-90s, my initial reaction to her was “wow, who’s the hottie who can banter with Keith Olbermann and Stuart Scott?”  But as the years rolled on and she became more of a staple of sports television, her true appeal and undeniable class and talent became far more defining that her looks.  As THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Claire Fahy reported, she showed that class even in her exit tweets:

Kolber said in her announcement that “longevity for a woman in this business is something I’m especially proud of.” Her company biography states that she has been “widely praised for elevating the N.F.L. sideline role” and notes that she was the first woman to win the Maxwell Football Club’s Sports Broadcaster of the Year Award. In 2019, she was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

I kind of wish Joe Namath had remembered all of that before he tried to kiss her in a drunken stupor on a Monday Night Football telecast she worked on years ago that too many people still recognize her for.  I’m really happy she is leaving on such a personal high note.

The losses of talents as insightful as McShay and Van Gundy and Kellerman are upsetting in other ways.  These are people who are true students of their respective beats.  What Kellerman knows about boxing alone qualifies him as brilliant, the fact he was able to be as accommodating to a perpetually shifting list of priorities and strategies of corporate executives, particularly on the ESPN Radio side, amidst some often serious personal problems makes him a survivor.  I always looked forward to his nuanced takes and passionate arguments, even when he took sides in debates that were unpopular.  I’m optimistic he’ll turn up somewhere else and I can’t wait until he can unload on ESPN braintrust in the manner that I enjoy so much from the likes of similarly discarded Bristol alumns like Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo (kind of hoping The Ringer might be a landing spot).

But perhaps the most galling dismissal was that of Sportscenter’s Ashley Brewer, who had been teamed in Los Angeles with the also-departing pride of the Pacific Northwest, the sardonic and eloquent Neil Everett, and my personal favorite Linda Cohn, my fellow SUNY Oswego alum.  Indeed, one can see in Brewer much of what made Cohn a success early on–quick wit and upbeat delivery that matches her passion for sports, and, yes, legs you don’t mind seeing in a skirt.  She was unapologetic about seeing Cohn as a mentor and inspiration, and that alone endeared her to me.   She’s also not among the highest paid anchors, having only recently joined the network after her former employer Quibi went belly up.   Like Kolber, she was pure class in how she chose to share her feelings with her fan base upon her dismissal.

Then this nugget, amplified by THE SPUN’s Andrew Holleran, emerged:

An ESPN host was fired a week before her wedding amid the company layoffs this week.

Longtime SportsCenter host Ashley Brewer revealed on social media that she was let go by the company this week.

While getting laid off is never easy, it’s even worse when it comes a week before you’re supposed to get married.

“I am so grateful for my time at ESPN and the opportunity to host Sportscenter. I learned and grew so much as a broadcaster and person. I will really miss all of the wonderful friends I made along the way. I know God has a plan for my life and I look forward to what’s next,” she wrote.

“What’s next: my wedding is in one week!”

Even for a company many less classy departers have referenced as Mousechwitz, this is a particularly low blow.

The fact that these layoffs are occurring simultaneously with their reported $85M deal with Pat McAfee, as well as the timing at the end of a fiscal year concurrent with buyout triggers, makes all of these moves all the more suspicious that they are anything but cosmetic hail marys on the part of Disney executives desperately trying to demonstrate they can be cold-hearted ruthless businessmen to an investment community that seems to give props to those who can do that.  Witness how they’re rewarding the Warner Brothers Discovery stock price these days.

But firing a thirty-something late night anchor a week before her nuptuals (to NBA center Frank Kaminsky no less)??

You heartless rodents.

I’m not so naive that I don’t think that McAfee won’t bring in a fan base that has eschewed sports television since the days where ESPN2, with Scott in a turtleneck and Kolber in her leather jacket with a jazzy remix of the dah-dah-dah that the mothership made iconic was considered groundbreaking.   From what I’ve seen of his work, it’s honestly pretty darn good.

But he’s got a lot of shoes to fill talent-wise, and I’ll be awfully eager to see how he interacts, if at all, with the likes of those who worked with these newly departed talents who were more like sacrifical lambs than sacred cows to make room for him.

At least I’m confident Ashley Brewer won’t be paying much as much attention to that as I will be.


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