Expect more layoffs at ESPN soon

If I didn’t know at least two of the journalists that ESPN laid off this week — the top cable sports network clipped about 100 people this week — I’d have said the downsizing was just.

Only it wasn’t. The network cut the wrong people.

Which means ESPN hasn’t learned its lesson. Which means they’re going to cut many more people sooner than you think.

This is not to beg ESPN to rehire the two dudes I know. I’m not going to name them. I’m not particularly close to them. They’re grown men. They can land on their feet.

No, this is to take ESPN to task for what led to the layoffs. What led to their falling ratings. It’s not about live-streaming sports on your smartphone. Despite what Breitbart News will have you believe, it’s not about an embrace of left-wing politics. It’s not a conspiracy theory at all. It’s not even style over substance.

It’s even worse. It’s style without substance. 

When layoffs were imminent, ESPN said it would downsize on-air talent because its news division had been cut to the bone. The two guys I knew were actual reporters. They broke stories. One broke national stories.

ESPN did trim on-air talent. It also hacked a lot of reporters this week. ESPN chiseled into the bone.

What made ESPN the place to be for that coveted male demographic was not the catchphrases or the hyperventilating sports columnist debate shows. We went to ESPN because its reporters had the inside dope. ESPN was the place to tune in for the NFL Draft, the MLB trade deadline, free agency, coaching changes.

In other words: Catchphrases and jokes are cute, but people will go out of their way to be informed. If it’s excellent information, they’ll become return customers for your information. They’ll be like the people who camp out in front of an Apple Store for an upgraded iPhone.

Jokes and opinions about sports? Hell, anyone can have that. I can do that. The guy with three DUIs at the end of the bar can do that. What makes his opinion any different than Woody Paige or Stephen A. Smith? Those hypespewers don’t break stories. They never did.

Oh, but at least we can still watch Jamele Hill and Michael Smith bump butts and dance at the start of the new slick version of “SportsCenter” — “SC6.” Yeah, that’s what we need. More unsubstantiated opinions, but this time it’s to the beat of a dope-ass mix tape. (To be honest, I only saw the butt-bumping on a commercial for the rebooted “SportsCenter.” I haven’t watched “SC6.” When I want to watch girls dance on TV, I go to Univision or BET.)

“SC6” is part of a misguided strategy that an executive outlined recently. He said he envisioned “SportsCenter” to be more of an entertainment show like “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, whatever the hell that means.

ESPN fell into the same trap that MTV did in the 1990s. MTV was a ratings juggernaut until it strayed from its core, music. MTV embraced personality over art and it never recovered. ESPN embraced personality over its core mission and people turned away.

Its core is sports fact, not opinion. As a result, the content simply isn’t good enough.

Therefore, ESPN simply isn’t good enough, either.

Expect more downsizing.

Hacky announcers may leave, but ESPN will always suffer from full-blown Berman

Chris Berman is out like Huey Lewis and the News.
Chris Berman is out like Huey Lewis and the News.

For those of you who have never met me, I confess like most comedians I had a bit of a shtick. I had a large personality and strong opinions. Sadly, had I used that act on TV, I would have been an ideal ESPN host from 2000 to the present day.

Chris Berman — the “Patient Zero” who infected ESPN with an HCP (hacky catch phrase) virus that ravaged the network’s T-cell count — might be retiring. Somebody had to tell me that because I haven’t watched ESPN programming (games, yes; anything else, no) in years.

Just like somebody had to tell me that ESPN got rid of Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Curt Schilling, etc.

All four with shtick. All four with strong, if ill-conceived, opinions. All gone. Only maybe not Berman, because he’s insisting he’s being forced out, not retiring.

I should be overjoyed. Berman, who has been with the company since 1979, has been spouting the same pop culture references since 1979. His act grew tiresome when Bush was elected — George H.W. Bush. That’s damn near 30 years.

You can only take so much bombast and blather before you simply regurgitate it. It’s kind of like not paying attention to that little half-puke belch you get at the frat kegger. Your pals look at you, hold your shoulder and plead, “Bro, you’ve got to maintain.” But you imbibe that final swig of “Pardon the Interruption” and next thing you know, you’re sprinting to the toilet to spew all of that ESPN into the sewage system.

You might ask: So what if one guy is overbearing, James? Just avoid him and all is well. I agree. Except, back in the 1980s when the act still had shelf life, ESPN decided to overload style over substance. Some style can work. There were some hits. You might loathe Keith Olbermann’s politics, but he was rather clever at ESPN. Same for Dan Patrick and Craig Kilborn.

But then you counter that with the unintelligible Cowherd, Bayless, Stuart Scott, Kenny Mayne, Woody Paige, Stephen A. Smith, Dan LeBatard — all shtick, no information, all screaming. A good friend once observed that people who don’t have much of an argument simply add volume. Every weekday, ESPN dedicated two hours of programming to chubby sportswriters screaming at each other over the same topics. The intellect was absent. The passion was phony. And I believe people sensed it.

All of those personalities wouldn’t have had jobs at ESPN if it weren’t for Berman.

In the process, ESPN paid for persona. Something had to give. The news department was completely gutted. News was a reason millions of us watched ESPN — the games and it also had the “inside dope” on teams.

We chose to get the inside dope elsewhere. We tuned out ESPN. Behind the style, there must be substance or people leave. Watching ESPN was like dating a Hooters girl with a meth addiction. Nice bikini body, but that nasty mouth and no brains…

I had to be told Bayless was leaving. I despised Skip Bayless — his unconditional love of Tim Tebow, his spray tan, his noise. But I can’t be happy or angry about his departure from ESPN because I simply don’t watch. He doesn’t affect me.

Same for Berman. As far as I’m concerned, ESPN can force him out the door with a send off that would make Kobe Bryant’s look like a child’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. It’s not going to matter, because I won’t be watching.

The gut feeling: ESPN didn’t expel those personalities because their act had grown tired. It’s because ESPN knows they can replace all of them cheaply with open mikers loitering in front of The Improv.

Because much like HIV, you don’t get rid of HCP. It only becomes full-blown Berman.

Know this, Chris: As you spend your golden years talking to the walls about Bert “Be Home” Blyleven, Jeff “Brown Paper” Bagwell or Andre “Bad Moon” Rison, your bosses will usher in a guy with a rubber chicken and nobody will notice the difference.