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Why the ESPN layoffs should terrify MMA promoters and fans

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The departures of scores of journalists and talking heads is just a symptom of a much larger problem that will change the marketplace. Is it time to rethink how UFC fighters present themselves?

Curt Menefee and Dana White

Journalism layoffs aren’t new.

At USA TODAY, I saw a young woman in tears when her first post-college job ended after a few months. And I saw an older man come in to tidy up piles of papers he’d accumulated on and around his desk over 15-20 years.

For the last two days, Twitter and sports sites have been riveted to the ongoing release of names of people losing their jobs at ESPNSportsCenter anchors, on-air reporters, radio hosts and more. Most people didn’t know my colleagues at USA TODAY and other newspapers. These are familiar faces to many.

Some of the people ESPN let go this week were part-time contributors, and I know that feeling first-hand. I kept writing for USA TODAY after I left the staff, the upside of leaving voluntarily without a severance package, and I’ve written for Fox and ESPN. I usually haven’t even gotten the courtesy of a call to tell me they can’t use me any more, leaving me to figure it out for myself. In one case, I had been promised a considerable amount of work in exchange for doing a considerable amount of work on one story they needed right away. Not that I’m bitter ...

The newspaper business is still recovering from the death of classified advertising (thanks, Craigslist) and the decline of department stores that used to buy several full pages of display ads every day. Online startups rarely figure out how to get enough revenue to pay anybody. Radio advertisers are slowly realizing that everyone changes the station or flips to Spotify when their interminable ad breaks start.

This week’s layoffs aren’t even the biggest in recent memory at ESPN. The Worldwide Leader parted with 300 people, mostly executives and behind-the-scenes producers/editors, a couple of years ago.

So why is this week’s news so staggering? Or, more to the point for an MMA blog, why should this cause ripples of fear in the offices of UFC, Bellator and anyone else who wants to show fights on TV?

Perhaps it’s because these cuts hit across the board. They didn’t just take out well-respected journalists like Shaun Assael, Ed Werder and Jayson Stark, whose lengthy Philadelphia Inquirer baseball notebooks back in the day were lifelines for us newspaper desk jockeys trying to fill out a Sunday section with wire copy. They got rid of regular on-air personalities like Jay Crawford, Jerry Punch and Andy Katz. They even got rid someone adept at the fanning the “debate” flames that are so en vogue today, radio host and frequent TV guest Danny Kanell.

But more importantly, it’s a tacit admission that ESPN has finally realized the old business model is declining.

Again, we’ve seen this before. You used to pay a dollar or two to USA TODAY and maybe a local paper whenever you checked into a hotel room, usually without realizing it, until hotels saw their guests checking news on their phones and leaving those newspapers unread. The fact that USA TODAY is still in business, albeit with a smaller staff, is testament to some sharp hires who revved up the website.

In ESPN’s case, Deadspin pointed out last year -- perhaps with a bit of typical schadenfreude -- that the network was slow to react to the decline in cable subscribers. People are cutting the cord. Cable and satellite subscribers have paid ESPN a lot of money -- in some cases, roughly what they might pay for HBO -- because they’ve had no choice.

Worth noting in that story: ESPN isn’t alone. “Other networks, like Spike TV, lost over a million subscribers, and ESPN’s nominal competitor, FS1, lost 355,000.” Yes, Spike. The longtime home of MMA on cable.

The other shoe dropping here is that these networks have all paid a ton of money for rights fees to live sports. Including the UFC.

So networks aren’t raking in money like they used to. (Don’t cry for ESPN as a company -- while the newspaper industry went off a cliff, the Worldwide Leader is merely rolling gently toward a plateau.) Their audiences are shrinking as Millennials -- who might not be as interested in live TV sports at all, let alone paying for a Verizon or YouTube TV package that has all the sports channels -- opt to chill with Netflix rather take in the live exploits of the Washington Capitals or Demetrious Johnson.

Might make you worried if you just spent a few billion dollars on a sports organization that will have its TV rights up for bidding again in a couple of years, right?

And it’s time to think about how the sport is presented.

The opening night of The Ultimate Fighter last week had a two-hour retrospective with Dana White ripping into people who fought in the house, reminding them that they were representing the sport to a general public that was skeptical of this cage-fighting thing. Then we saw two hours of Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw exchanging childish insults and starting to brawl like a bunch of third-graders who were dragging up the rear of the class on vocabulary tests.

If you’re flipping through the channels on the cable package you’re thinking of ditching, and you stumble into Garbrandt bragging about his trachea assault on Dillashaw, are you going to renew that deluxe package with Cox?

The UFC is going to have to think about this. A lot.