Saturday Sports: Layoffs At ESPN, Star High School Baseball Pitcher

Apr 29, 2017
Originally published on April 29, 2017 10:34 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Finally, it's time for sports.

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SIMON: And I guess a hundred is kind of a theme for the news portions of today's program and that same number shook the sports world as ESPN let go of about a hundred employees this week, including producers and on-air personalities as more people watch sports online while ESPN still pays enormous amounts of money for broadcast rights. But has the network also gotten over its skis on other matters? NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott, welcome back.

SIMON: Thank you. Good to be back. Although, I had fun, too. Not to drag politics into sports, but there are some people who believe ESPN has done just that and may have lost viewers because of it.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, there are. They say ESPN leans left, and that's driven away Conservative sports fans. Conservative commentators and bloggers cite lots of coverage of Caitlyn Jenner and transgender issues, lots of coverage of Colin Kaepernick and his anthem protests. Although, I watched a lot of that and not all was supportive of Kaepernick.

ESPN also has made visible moves to promote diversity, pulling - putting more women and people of color in prominent on-air positions. ESPN's public editor named Jim Brady acknowledged in a tweet this week that politics is a small cause for ESPN's problems. But he also wrote in a column, a few weeks ago, the network isn't going to stick to sports, and it'll continue covering the fusion of sports and culture and politics.

SIMON: I've been in the sports world for a couple of weeks, as you know, on book tours, in and out of sports studios. And I know the feeling there seems to be this is something much bigger for ESPN because it has all these long-term top-dollar broadcast rights while more and more people are just cutting the cord and streaming sports online.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. I think there's general agreement those are the main causes according to Nielsen data. ESPN has lost more than 10 million subscribers in the past five years. And at the same time, as you mentioned, ESPN is paying billions in rights fees to broadcast NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, college sports.

You know, it's not certain whether the layoffs can help recoup losses or if they're more of a signal to shareholders that ESPN is taking the losses seriously and trying to streamline. Either way, Scott, the network has lost some talented journalists. And you hope they find outlets to continue their great work.

SIMON: Have to ask about the cover of Sports Illustrated.

GOLDMAN: Were you on?

SIMON: You know, no. Maybe regionally, maybe in the Midwest, maybe even in Chicago...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...With my word processor as they say. But in any event, it's a 17-year-old pitcher out of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. His name is Hunter Greene. And the cover says, is he baseball's LeBron or the new Babe?

Now, look, I have seen video of Hunter Greene. I am excited about him. But is it wise to hang this line around the neck of a gifted young man?

GOLDMAN: Little bit of pressure? Of course, LeBron James hit the cover of SI years ago with the words, the chosen one, and that worked out pretty well. You know, we are always so ready to christen the youngest as the next greatest of all time, but we need to remember greatness, winning, usually takes time.

It's a small sample size but I think relevant. In the NBA playoffs, four of the first five teams to win opening playoff series had older starting lineups based on the average age of the starting five. So age matters.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, LeBron is a good example, by the way, now that he's in his 30s. Before we go, any quick nice stories that you noticed in the NFL draft?

GOLDMAN: We are so NFL obsessed, Scott. Seems like every player drafted is a noteworthy story in his new city. I will pluck out one, though - quarterback Deshaun Watson drafted by Houston this week. When he was 11, he and his mom and siblings moved from public housing into a Habitat for Humanity house. It was presented to them by NFL player Warrick Dunn, one of the most charitably-minded athletes ever. Watson was drafted 12th by the Houston - same draft position Warrick Dunn went in 1997.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.