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ESPN’s Massacre: The Land of Broken Dreams

By Buddy Martin
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Nobody ever loses their job without feeling a sense of rejection and an assault on their self-worth. And in many cases, it’s the destruction of a dream and a traumatic, life-changing event.

Ever been fired or laid off? Ever been in a company where friends and colleagues got axed? Ever had to lay somebody off because you were ordered to do it? 

Almost all of us fit that category. I fit all three. And it sucks, on all counts.

They may tell you “it’s just business,” but no matter what they say, that’s a lie.

It’s always personal.

“They tell everybody ‘it’s just business,’ but they’re just trying to make themselves and their bosses feel better,” said a friend of mine who was recently laid off in another industry.

Nobody ever loses their job without feeling a sense of rejection and an assault on their self-worth. And in many cases, it’s the destruction of a dream and a traumatic, life-changing event.

Such was the case in the brutal bloodletting by ESPN, the likes of which were hardly ever seen before in the sports media business. Well, sort of. Maybe not as publicly with so many prominent names, but there have been other sports media failures and mass firings.

ESPN’s saga was just a child of the 24-hour news cycle and social media trumpeting. For months we’d been hearing the grim projections about the industry and about anticipated firings. Several talented friends of mine at ESPN had sleepless nights wondering if they were “on the list.” Names you’d all know.

“If they fire me, I’ll just come to Florida, be your radio show co-host and play golf every day,” said one longtime cast member of a high profile show.

Another big ESPN name privately confided concern over the  “what if” scenario and was flummoxed over the pending changes even though I felt sure he was going to be spared.

“Well,” I e-mailed him, “you can always move back to your home state and do your show on a 5,000-watt radio station.”

My friend said he felt fairly positive about making the cut because he had been invited to a key meeting in New York for advertisers, but clearly he was nervous. After all, where would the ax fall?

When the executioner’s work was done and the names of the 100 started rolling in, it began to feel real. Some of the people were former colleagues of mine. Several were old friends. I once hired Derek Tyson to cover college recruiting. And I remember Ed Werder as a cub reporter at the Boulder (Colo.) Camera where he worked with Rick Reilly.

The list had many familiar names: Len Elmore, Andy Katz, Brett McMurphy, Jayson Stark, Johnette Howard, Melissa Isaacson, Danny Kanell, Trent Dilfer, Jay Crawford, Roger Cossack, Jim Bowden, Dr. Jerry Punch …

The cuts were deep and significant.

My two friends who worried about getting the ax did survive, but not without some scary moments.

*     *     *

ESPN's big staff reduction wasn’t the first, or biggest, in sports media. We've been seeing endless streams of pink-slipped journalists for more than a decade and watched as they doused the lights of entire newspapers as well as magazines and radio stations.

My how the landscape has changed. As an editor/columnist/producer over the last half-century, with the decline of newspapers/magazines and the erosion of TV markets, I’ve also participated in several "newspaper wars," sat on both sides of the desk during painful downsizing and been a party to numerous epic cost-cutting episodes that led to large layoffs.

Each one of them took a piece of journalism’s soul. And now, at a time when the profession is being body-bagged, disowned and discredited by the most powerful man in the world, it sometimes feels like an idealistic, long lost dream that will never be reprised.

We are all hopeful for a revival of that soul somewhere, one day in the cyber world. It doesn’t look promising.

*     *     *

All of this ESPN stuff conjured up a bleak memory for me that happened at the New York Daily News 36 years ago – the darkest moment in my journalism career.

As a boy growing up in a small Southern town, I had dreams of one day working for a New York City newspaper. In earlier years, while I was sports editor of a 14,000 circulation daily, I even dared to dream the absurd idea of running a sports department of a New York paper one day.

As years flew by and my career advanced, that dream grew even larger – of taking the show to Broadway and amassing a talented staff the likes of which had rarely been seen.

Amazingly, that dream came true before my 40th birthday when I was hired by the New York Daily News – at the time the newspaper with the largest circulation in the United States. In perhaps a hasty decision, the Chicago-based Tribune Company had decided in 1980 to launch an afternoon version called “The Daily News Tonight.” It would cost roughly $25 million.

As sports editor I was instructed to immediately go out and hire the most talented writers and editors I could find – in just six weeks!

As far-fetched as it might have sounded, we were able to pull it off. The late Van McKenzie was my assistant at three previous newspapers – the Ocala Star-Banner, Florida Today and the St. Petersburg Times. We had been keeping lists of talented sports journalists since we had begun working together more than 15 years earlier. So we already had a roster of talent, some of the most gifted writers and editors in the business.

(By the way, several people we interviewed and weren’t able to hire eventually went on to became either sports editors at large newspapers or key executives at ESPN when it was born eight years later.)

For a while our stars were shining brightly and we rocked!

From Philadelphia came brilliant features writers like Gary Smith, plus NBA writer/columnist Thom Greer and NHL writer Mary Flannery. We added outstanding writer/reporter Randy Harvey from Texas.

Our New Yorkers included Gary Myers of the Associated Press (NFL football), plus Pete Alfano and Dan Lauck of Long Island’s Newsday. From Florida we brought north editors Roger Fischer (Orlando), Gene Williams (Miami) and writers Jenny Kellner (Miami), Bill Brubaker (Miami) and Don Greenberg (St. Petersburg). From Atlanta came editors John Clendenon and Eric Girard. We also brought in copy editors Bill St. Angelo and Mike Hanlon from places we can’t remember. From the NCAA we hired another editor, Larry Klein.

We even hired a promising writer fresh out of Syracuse – Mike McAlary.

Many of these are names that are still well known today – especially Smith, whose work was often hailed while he was at Sports Illustrated; Myers, who became a recognized expert on everything NFL; Harvey, who broke many big stories for the Dallas Morning News; and Greer, who became the sports editor and later managing editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Our Friday Sports Extra was resplendent with long, interesting features and our Sunday sports pullout was fat with news, columns and features. All that blended with the fine work of others already on staff – Mike Lupica, Bill Madden, Lawrie Mifflin, Dick Young, Bob Decker, Larry Fox, Frank Brown, Bill Gallo, Bill Verigan, Russ Harris, Eric Compton, Chuck Slater and Lee Stowbridge plus administrative assistant Delores Thompson, sports photographer Tony Casale and graphic artist Don DeMaio.  And there were so many, many more.

Later, after I left the News and joined the Denver Post, my boss Will Jarrett, who had worked at newspapers in Dallas, Philadelphia and Miami, called that Daily News staff “the greatest group of sports talent ever assembled under one roof.”

Our “Dream Team” lasted about a year. In secret meetings, our bosses began to break the bad news to the management group: The Daily News Tonight would soon fold. We were to prepare our list for layoffs. There were strict orders of procedure, too. Under union rules (The Newspaper Guild) the “last hired will be the first fired.”

As the dream started coming apart, piece by piece, it brought new meaning to the lyrics of James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain”: “Sweet dreams and flying machines … and pieces on the ground.”

For nearly three weeks I had to walk around the staff and act normal. I had night-time terrors and became depressed. What could I do to help them?

Finally I made a decision: I would call some of my sports editor friends on the QT and tell them to please consider holding any open spots until they could interview some of our laid-off people – but not to speak to them until after it was announced.

Rather quickly after the layoff, jobs opened up for these talented people. As I recall, after they received severance checks, they all landed jobs without missing a paycheck.

Until this day I have never really publicly or personally addressed that painful time. And only in recent years have I even discussed it. For a long time I was ridden with guilt. When I would run across one of the former Daily News Tonight staffers we just didn’t bring it up. I could tell that some people still had hard feelings about it and no doubt blamed me. I can understand that. I felt responsible myself because I had asked them to join me on this venture without realizing there would be a perilous route ahead.

I just never considered the possibility that we would fail.

*     *    *

Although it ranks as a major disappointment in the lives of myself and a few others, as epic failures go in the sports media business, The Daily News Tonight was a blip on the screen.

As it turned out, Van McKenzie would leave for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he blossomed into a superstar editor who would dominate the industry as far as collecting talent and winning awards were concerned. He then was hired away as managing editor of a mammoth new project called The National Sports Daily.

The National became the “Field of Dreams” for every sports journalist in America.

Nobody has ever lashed together as much talent, spent as much money in as short a time or taken as big a swing at the plate as did Emilio Azcárraga, a filthy rich Mexican businessman who decided to launch the newspaper version of Sports Illustrated.

Azcárraga hired Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated, and Deford hired McKenzie – Frank said Van was his "best hire" of anybody – and they employed the biggest and best names of sports journalism imaginable. Although I was not among that group, McKenzie said he had hoped to bring me aboard as a Florida columnist when that state opened its venue.

It never happened. The National Sports Daily died 16 months later after losing nearly $9 million a month. The website Grantland called The National: "The Greatest Paper That Ever Died: Radically brilliant. Absurdly ahead of its time. Ridiculously poorly planned. The National changed everything about sports journalism — and torched $150 million in the process.”

Several of my former Daily News colleagues and quite a few other friends went down with sports journalism’s version of the Titanic. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser still calls it, “The great and noble experiment of sports writing in America.”

When The National had its last breath, defiantly and creatively, the front-page headline blazed “WE HAD A BALL!” with the subhead “The Fat Lady Sings Our Song.”

*      *     *

It was about 10 years after the Daily News layoff – over 25 years ago – in the well-known and now-defunct New York restaurant Elaine’s that I first had any dialogue with my former Daily News Tonight compadres.

While I was on the payphone (yes, a payphone), I spied McAlary at the bar and he walked over.  He had eventually come back to work for the Daily News.

We shook hands and as we chatted he delivered a message: “I just wanted to say thank you for what you did for me. First, giving me a chance out of college to work at the News. And secondly helping me find a job after I was laid off.”

I thanked him, but he will never know how much his words meant to me. I didn’t even know myself until I heard them. 

At age 41, Mike McAlary won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1998 and died of colon cancer in the same year. The late Nora Ephron wrote a Broadway play, “Lucky Guy,” about McAlary, who was portrayed by Tom Hanks.

Yes, it’s personal. It’s always personal.

Just like it is for the 100 ESPN employees, their colleagues, family and friends.

Buddy Martin - Buddy Martin is a veteran columnist, talk show host and author. A longtime observer of college football, Martin is heard weeknights on the Buddy Martin Show on ESPN Coastal Georgia and WMOP/WGGG in Ocala/Gainesville Fla. and the Southern Pigskin Radio Network, where he also co-hosts The Terry Bradshaw Show. Buddy won an Emmy while he was with Terry at CBS as an associate producer. More of Buddy's work can be found at where his show is streamed live. Buddy's most recent book is Steve Spurrier's autobiography "Head Ball Coach: My Life in Football" published by Blue Rider Press. He also wrote Urban Meyer's authorized biography, "Urban's Way," and Terry Bradshaw's autobiography "Looking Deep." Contact him at, Facebook/The Buddy Martin Show and @Buddyshow on Twitter.