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ESPN Layoffs Raise New Questions about Network’s Boxing Future

By Ivan G. Goldman

ESPN, which this year shaved its boxing schedule down to a nub, is laying off 4 percent of its workforce as fees from cable and satellite subscribers take a downward swing. The move has its boxing people worried.

So far none of the network’s on-air boxing people have been affected, but employees wonder just what kind of future prizefighting has on the Disney-owned network. This year it killed Friday Night Fights from its ESPN2 schedule and effectively turned its boxing programming over to Al Haymon’s new PBC entity, which spreads its shows over several networks.

At this point ESPN has only one more show scheduled for calendar year 2015. That would be a card out of Hialeah, Florida November 25, when Erislandy Lara, 21-2-2, 12 KOs, faces 39-year-old Jan Zaveck, 35-3, 19KOs, in a super welterweight match. The match will be carried by ESPN and ESPN Deportes.

On-air personnel sign personal contracts with the network, and they expire at different times, so if any of those employees are about to go, word could dribble out like Chinese water torture. Earlier this year ESPN failed to renew contracts for high-profile Keith Olbermann, Colin Cowherd, and Bill Simmons, none of whom are boxing specialists. Meanwhile, behind-the-camera personnel, which number 8,000 worldwide, will not be so numerous.

The uncertain direction of ESPN, particularly as it applies to prizefighting, helps explain why trainer and on-air analyst Teddy Atlas chose to head west and train Tim Bradley out in California’s rattlesnake country. Bradley defends his WBO welterweight title November 7 against Brandon Rios in Las Vegas. The match will be on HBO. Bradley hopes for a third pay-per-view fight against Manny Pacquiao in April. The Philippines congressman now says that will be his last fight against an opponent yet to be named.

ESPN president John Skipper, announcing the layoff of approximately 300 employees in an Orwellian memo that can be found on the Internet, proudly declared that the network has always been willing “to reimagine our future” and “to embrace change.” I rather doubt the fired employees were inspired by the phrasing. The “organizational changes,” Skipper said, will “better support our future goals.”

To be fair, networks are all scrambling to remain relevant as viewers gradually flee cable packages to view shows on different platforms such as Netflix. Other heads will roll as the process continues.

The Disney Corporation, which owns ESPN, is valued at $191.5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Other segments include worldwide Disney theme parks and water resorts, its film business, retail toys and related products, and eight TV stations around the country.

PBC pays networks for air time. Because PBC is owned by notoriously secretive Haymon, that makes it even more difficult to gauge boxing’s future on ESPN. The network, according to Disney’s financial reports, remains a key profit center for the corporation. If there’s still money in boxing – and there is – the network will likely continue to embrace it. But the embrace won’t necessarily be spirited.

Ivan G. Goldman’s 5th novel The Debtor Class is a ‘gripping …triumphant read,’ says Publishers Weekly. A future cult classic with ‘howlingly funny dialogue,’ says Booklist. Available now from Permanent Press wherever fine books are sold. Goldman is a New York Times best-selling author.

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