The traditional trappings of an ESPN “upfront” were in evidence Tuesday as the network made its annual pitch to advertisers in midtown Manhattan — A-list guests, sports mascots, hokey dialogue and breakfast goodies.
But the elephant in the room at the Minskoff Theatre was the challenging, changing times in the sports television business that recently prompted a wave of layoffs at ESPN that disproportionately hit journalists and jolted the industry.
For the most part, ESPN personnel talked in generalities about the subject, starting with president John Skipper, who opened the show by saying:
“The current environment forces us to be realists as well as optimists. So let me be upfront at this upfront. ESPN is responding to change and we are making changes from the most dramatic position of strength.”
Skipper traditionally speaks to reporters after the show, but he did not this year. A spokesman said he left to attend a meeting.
Accentuating the positive is the point of these events, and ESPN mostly stuck to that, but Kenny Mayne brought down the house with an irreverent, off-color bit dressed as the “Angel of Advertising,” bluntly addressing the trying times.
Mayne got the biggest laugh of the morning when he told advertisers that if they would go along with the premise that people still watch television, ESPN would go along with the premise that people “buy stuff based on advertising.”
ESPN took the occasion to announce formally that Mike Greenberg will leave his longtime morning radio job alongside Mike Golic to launch a new morning television show starting Jan. 1, details of which remain under discussion.
Serena Williams joined Greenberg on stage as his first, unofficial guest, and said she feels good and plans to “keep winning grand slams” after returning, presumably in 2018, from maternity leave.
Trey Wingo will replace Greenberg on the radio to partner with Golic.
Beth Mowins and Rex Ryan will be in the booth for the second game of “Monday Night Football’s” opening doubleheader on Sept. 11, between the Chargers and Broncos, making Mowins the first woman since 1987 to call an NFL game on TV.
For Ryan, it will be a high-profile debut in his new role as an ESPN analyst. Ryan joked that fellow analyst Charles Woodson warned him he will have to carry veterans’ bags as part of his rookie initiation.
Ryan said he would tell the truth based on what he is seeing and not be afraid to be critical of coaches. He said the best thing about leaving coaching after stints with the Jets and Bills is no longer facing Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
“I’m not going to miss the two [butt] whippings I take a year from him,” Ryan said.
The upfront always showcases a variety of ESPN personalities, but this year the network made a point of parading an unprecedented number of them onto the stage, in a presumed effort to demonstrate plenty of talent remains after the layoffs of about 100 people last month.
Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president for “SportsCenter” and news, said no additional layoffs are planned for now. He also defended the network’s ongoing commitment to journalism.
“You know as well as I do that we employ more sports journalists than any other entity on the planet,” he said. “We had to make some specific choices that were hard, but in the end we still employ many people who are out there digging.”