ESPN Makes Big Bets Amid Discontent

By Alex Weprin 

ESPN has made a pair of big, splashy hires in the least two weeks, securing Keith Olbermann for a new nightly talk show on ESPN2, and the expected addition of Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog in the coming days.

Their additions have boosted morale at the Bristol CT-based sports giant, according to a staffer there, with people getting excited for the buzzworthy additions. That said, there is discontent brewing inside the company among some employees, and the additions of Olbermann and Silver are in some respects exacerbating the problem.

First, ESPN’s signature journalism program “Outside The Lines,” was unceremoniously demoted to an earlier timeslot on ESPN2 last week. Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch has more on that decision. “OTL” was an iconic program for ESPN, securing Emmy nominations and producing high-quality sports journalism like no other program on the channel. Now, it will be on ESPN’s little sibling, in a timeslot not familiar to many viewers.


Second: ESPN laid off hundreds of employees in May, in its biggest reorganization in years. A disproportionate number of the laid off staffers were long-time employees of the company, who now find themselves out of work in central Connecticut. At the time the justification for the restructuring was that the company had gotten bloated, and needed to reorganize around more forward-looking units. ESPN’s still-in-construction multimillion dollar “SportsCenter” studio was also cited as a reason to trim costs.

With the additions of Olbermann and Silver, however, some ESPN staffers are privately wondering whether the company was saving some cash to spend on the pair. Negotiations with both were happening at the time of the layoffs. Silver had at least three companies vying for his services, with MSNBC, and the NY Times also in the mix late into the game.

Still, there is no denying that ESPN is bringing some buzz to its stable, something it hasn’t seen since the first “30 for 30” documentaries graced the channel a few years ago. While some inside ESPN HQ are still reeling from the layoffs, most of the staffers that survived the cuts are excited for what is coming down the pipe. With Fox Sports making a big push with Fox Sports 1, Olbermann and Silver are giving ESPNers something to be excited about.