ESPN Begins Hundreds of Layoffs

Cuts at Disney-Owned Sports Outlet Could Affect More Than 300

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ESPN is axing a single-digit percentage of its global workforce, a move that could pink-slip 300-plus employees around the world.

With revenue streams from advertisers and subscribers, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports" rarely lays off staffers. But ESPN spokeswoman Katina Arnold confirmed staff cuts in a statement Tuesday.

The Walt Disney unit employs about 4,000 people in the U.S. and 7,000 worldwide. She declined to disclose the number of employees affected.

"We are implementing changes across the company to enhance our continued growth while smartly managing costs," Ms. Arnold said. "While difficult, we are confident that it will make us more competitive, innovative and productive."

Deadspin's John Koblin, who first reported the layoffs, wrote earlier Tuesday that the cuts appeared to number in the hundreds. But James Andrew Miller, author of the best-selling ESPN book, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN," tweeted the number is more like 300 to 400 -- and includes open jobs that won't be filled.

A person familiar with the situation said the move is a companywide restructuring. But since some open jobs won't be filled, the number of actual layoffs will end up lower than some reports, the person said.

The pain caused by layoffs at the insular, self-enclosed bubble at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., is not taken lightly, Mr. Miller said. The last layoffs were in 2009. But with cable competitors such as News Corp.s Fox Sports 1 looming, ESPN has been spending big money lately to stockpile sports rights.

ESPN President John Skipper recently announced a $825 million, 11-year deal to put the U.S. Open tennis tournament, a longtime staple of broadcast TV, entirely on cable. Starting in 2015, ESPN will pay $825 million over 11 years to take over the TV rights has held by CBS Sports for 46 years.

Said Mr. Miller: "This is not a story about retrenchment. It's a story of realignment. They're looking how and where they can be most productive. If there's way they can achieve some savings in some places, that's great."

The demand for cost-cutting could also be coming down on high from parent Disney, Mr. Miller said. CEO Robert Iger recently laid off hundreds of employees across Walt Disney Studio, LucasArts and Lucasfilm and streamlined operations.

Mr. Miller's Twitter followers immediately erupted Tuesday with calls for ESPN's to fire highly paid columnists such as Rick Reilly, the former Sports Illustrated writer who makes an estimated $3 million a year.

"Today is a Twitteverse dream. Because everybody gets to sound off on who they think should be fired," Mr. Miller said.

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