BOZICH | College basketball hit hardest in ESPN.com cuts
College basketball coverage at ESPN.com took a major hit during the extensive layoffs that were announced by ESPN this week.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The early scouting reports are out for the 2018 college basketball season, and here is the surest prediction of all:
ESPN.com has raced from a one-seed to a 16-seed in its digital coverage of the sport.
As a headline writer from the New York Daily News would write it:
ESPN.com to College Basketball: Drop Dead.
Excuse me if I need a moment to digest this. ESPN, the television network, was built on college basketball.
Big Monday. The Big East. Michael Jordan. Bob Knight. Allen Fieldhouse. Hoya Paranoia. Ralph Sampson. Rupp Arena. Louie Carnesecca’s sweaters. Phi Slama Jama. Freedom Hall.
If it didn’t happen on ESPN, it didn't happen. Nothing confirmed that a program had arrived quicker and more authoritatively than the sight of a white banner with the red letters E-S-P-N hanging in an arena. Students snatched the banners to hang in their dorms.
ESPN.com was a natural spinoff. It became the place to go for most of the top national insight and information into college hoops. Typically, when it was time for a prime event like the Champions Classic, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or Duke-North Carolina, ESPN.com set up, covered and then analyzed the games. It's the place where the best writers in the game wanted to work.
Time ran out Wednesday.
ESPN.com, the website, announced it has as much interest in backgammon and marbles as it does in the game that made sports fans pay serious attention to the network more than three decades ago.
The announcement came in the jarring news that among the 100 or so employees ESPN laid off this week were Dana O'Neil, Andy Katz, C.L. Brown, Eamonn Brennan and Len Elmore. (Yes, I know them all and consider them friends.)
There could be more. The names continued to trickle out of Bristol, Conn., the way that analyst Seth Greenberg confirmed that Katz no longer worked at ESPN.
If you're keeping score, that means ESPN no longer had a spot or space for college basketball's best story-teller (O'Neil), information guy (Katz), Tobacco Road aficionado (Brown), analytics/trend spotter (Brennan) and old school analyst (Elmore).
Yes, Jeff Goodman, Myron Medcalf, John Gasaway, Jeff Borzello and a few others survived, but college football, the NBA, MLB and the NFL didn't take the considerable hit that college basketball took.
Consider that confirmation college basketball matters less to the four-letter network than blocking and tackling dummies. Consider this my letter of concern that ESPN.com is prepared to abandon serious journalism for former coaches and players back-scratching current coaches and players. (At least more of it.)
Anybody paying attention could not be surprised. Football, professional and college, has been sucking all the oxygen from the room at ESPN for years.
It makes me howl, but given a choice between a 90-second segment about 40-yard dash times and cone drills or three-point shooting, ESPN will always lean toward the stopwatch and chinstrap.
Kentuckiana and Tobacco Road are different. Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Syracuse would make my short list of schools and markets where interest in college basketball exceeds or at least equals interest in football, college or professional.
The rest of America?
It's a football world -- in case you had forgotten that lesson when it was delivered several years ago during conference realignment.
But the decision to eliminate at least half of its college basketball Internet lineup has to be viewed as a snapshot into what ESPN.com research and philosophy is about serious college basketball coverage.
It doesn't matter.
I don't expect the network to stop or even reduce its commitment to carrying college basketball games. It has too many expensive rights contracts -- and too much inventory to fill between football and basketball seasons. The games will go on. They usually do.
It's a business decision -- and I understand that ESPN understands its business better than I understand its business. Wall Street and investors needed a message of reassurance. I lived through that in the newspaper business.
ESPN is a Goliath in the sports media world, but even Goliaths cannot ignore the swift and unrelenting challenges in the modern communication world.
Revenues are obviously down because more consumers have unplugged from cable and satellite TV. Expenses have increased because commissioners, athletics directors and coaches, like everybody, will always ask for more revenue.
Some have called this a market correction -- and a hat tip to Wall Street.
I'm also calling it a message from ESPN.com to college basketball:
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