ESPN confirmed it will reduce its ranks of on-air and online employees. The number of job eliminations remains unclear but the company is still hiring in other areas and total personnel in Bristol is not expected to fall significantly.
When the first of the high-profile layoffs hit ESPN last week, longtime NFL reporter Ed Werder unwittingly became the face of the news as the first and biggest name to go.
As the week went on, there were plenty of others, with the NBA staff being replaced by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski and, presumably, more of his reporters. It made for a jarring week and Werder talked about the experience on his podcast, questioning ESPN’s mission and saying he was given the option to continue to cover the NFL draft. He described how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reached out to him and how the whole experience left him feeling a little like Brett Favre.
"It’s not the quality of your work that’s a factor," Werder said on his "Doomsday Podcast," a Dallas Cowboys-focused podcast with Matt Mosley. "Well, it causes me to wonder, what is ESPN about? Because I mean, I thought it was about news and information and highlights, and I’m not sure that is the point of emphasis any more. How is ESPN going to cover the NFL without all of the people who just lost their jobs?
"What happens without Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski to ‘NFL Matchup?’ What happens to ‘NFL Insiders’ without a number of analysts, former general managers like Joe Banner and Mark Dominik? Are we really about to see a time when ESPN can no longer afford to cover its most valuable property in the way that historically it has?"
Those people haven’t been confirmed as job casualties, but the cuts that began April 26 continued through the weekend, with more likely to come. On Monday, Andrew Brandt and Adam Caplan from the network’s NFL coverage announced their termination.
For Werder personally, it was a surreal experience, one he compared it to "dropping in on your own funeral." He has heard from "three or four head coaches, multiple general managers, Hall of Fame players, current players."
Oh, and Goodell.
"[T]he most surprising to me was Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, phoned me. He said he was angered by it. I haven’t spoken to him yet, but that surprised me. And that tells me something about Roger Goodell as a human being.
"And I offered in a text message back to him that I would, failing to find future work, that when he goes back to Foxborough [for the New England Patriots’ NFL season opener] … I’ll go back as his body double. We’re similarly colored, and at one point when I was covering a game in New Orleans, a security person tried to deny me access to the field and then confused me for Roger Goodell and let me pass. I’m willing to do that for Roger if it comes to that. If I don’t find other work, I will have a pretty huge demand for my fee because I’ll be risking my life."
After being laid off, Werder was given the option by his boss — with a human-resources employee on the line when he called Werder — to continue to cover the New Orleans Saints in the draft, which began Thursday. For instance, Britt McHenry, another NFL reporter who was laid off, chose to finish covering the draft.
"When they finished telling me I was laid off, they said this was effective immediately," Werder said. "And the next thing they told me to do as a former employee of ESPN was stay and cover the Saints draft, which seemed like an odd way to begin your unemployment. But it seemed like it was my option, and I chose not to. I just didn’t feel like it was the right place for me to be, alone in a hotel room and then out in public as a former employee, representing ESPN with the New Orleans Saints. So I went home without covering any picks this time from New Orleans."
While the layoff couldn’t compare with the health struggles of Werder’s daughter and late son-in-law, it did cap a pretty rotten week in which the family’s beloved dog, Austin, died. A veteran NFL reporter, Werder now ponders what’s next besides the podcast.
"[A] lot of people have been humored by the fact that I changed [the Twitter handle] from @EdWerderESPN to @EdWerderFA, then @EdWerderRFA. People have been asking on Twitter what does this mean? … ESPN has told me, and I’m sure all of the others who were let go that they are going to honor our contracts. At the same time, their expectation is that we are going to honor those contracts. What I’ve subsequently found out by having dialogue through a lawyer with the legal department is they are not anticipating allowing you to negotiate your way out of your contract. They’re allowing us to go pursue other opportunities if there are some. But if you get a job you want, what I’ve been told is if you want the job, take it knowing you’re not going to be paid by ESPN. You’re not gonna double dip, we’re not gonna just offset.
"So I feel a little bit like Brett Favre when he left the Packers. And I was covering him at this time. Favre was most angry about the fact that the Packers, in his mind, took away his team and then denied him the opportunity to go compete wherever he wanted to. And what he wanted to do was compete against them. And his point was, ‘You think I’m no good, so what do you care where I go? Why can’t I just go play for the Minnesota Vikings and we’ll see if I’m any good?’ Well, obviously the Packers have their own interests to protect, and I understand that.
"And that’s why I’m sort of a restricted free agent."
When ESPN went on the air in September 1979, there was no running water for the couple of dozen employees at the Bristol headquarters, and they used port-a-johns and worked long hours fueled only by vendor carts at the construction site. That first 20,000-square-foot building still stands, but it has been expanded several times. The structure is now just one of 18 on a campus that has grown to 123 acres and nearly a million square feet.