We don’t usually cover media business news around these parts, but this is a significant one for hockey fans in the United States. ESPN, the biggest sports outlet in the world, laid off a huge number of its staffers Wednesday, including some of the most prominent NHL writers in the country.
ESPN has been dealing with declining cable subscriptions and increasing rights fees for live games over the past couple years, which has given the Disney-owned company some issues.
Among those who lost their jobs based on word from social media are Pierre LeBrun, Joe McDonald, and Scott Burnside. These are some of the most respected, experienced reporters in the hockey industry, and it’s a sign that ESPN may be planning to decrease its already paltry coverage of the sport going forward.
This, in a word, sucks. It sucks for those who lost their jobs, it sucks for the fans who get less great content to read, it sucks for everyone else in the industry who gets a reminder that the NHL, no matter how much we love it, will always be a second-class sport behind football and basketball.
ESPN’s layoffs aren’t exactly isolated in the hockey industry. CBS Sports recently rolled back its national coverage, and most other outlets have significantly more full-time writers covering the NBA and NFL than the NHL. Here at SB Nation, they have countless full-time staffers in other sports, but just one full-time person who focuses solely on hockey and the hockey network.
The reality is that these places operate purely on a numbers basis — what’s Chartbeat look like?!? — and I can tell you from firsthand experience that the NHL never reaches the traffic highs that websites see from covering Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Lionel Messi. Other than the rare exceptions when something like a Subban-for-Weber trade happens, the NHL doesn’t generate the kind of casual following that allows websites to go all out for the NFL draft because the numbers are there.
And when all these places have to decide how to allocate limited resources in the ruthless business of advertisement-funded media content, there’s a point where it makes more sense to funnel money toward more posts about LeBron than trying to convince people to care about Ryan Johansen and the Predators (although these layoffs now appear so extensive that they’re impacting coverage across multiple sports and platforms at ESPN).
This is the current reality of the NHL in the United States. It’s quite popular in some areas, but the national audience isn’t there for NBC to put more than a few games on the big station all year. And now we’re seeing that even ESPN is struggling to see the value in investing money into a sport that most people only care about a few times a year, if that. Craig Custance and Corey Pronman are the only two remaining full-time NHL writers at ESPN, and they’re both behind the Insider paywall.
Hopefully someone will figure out how to make NHL coverage work on a different level than it does now. Maybe the secret is to go smaller, not pursue growth on the level of a place like ESPN, and hope that hockey can get the equivalents to FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus in that sport. Maybe the solution is going indy with platforms like Patreon. NHL.com keeps hiring, but the solution cannot be to turn over independent media coverage to reporters paid by the league.
Even if you didn’t love ESPN’s hockey coverage, this is terrible news. They could be a leader in helping establish a greater national hockey audience, but this is basically them saying they tried and they’re bailing for now. It’s the latest in a worrisome trend for U.S. hockey fans.