Disney’s widespread layoffs are not going quite as deep at ESPN as in other parts of the empire, but the roster of those departing does include at least one high-ranking exec: Russell Wolff, GM of ESPN+.
The EVP’s exit was reported by multiple media outlets and then confirmed to Deadline by a person familiar with the cuts, whose second wave began rolling out Monday and will continue until Thursday. Disney plans to lay off some 7,000 workers, roughly 3% of its global workforce, in pursuit of $5.5 billion in cost savings. ESPN is expected to cut fewer than 100 workers during this round.
Wolff was promoted to his current role in 2018, the same year ESPN+ launched. The service now ended 2022 with 24.9 million subscribers. In a note to his colleagues, Wolff said he would be departing in July, capping a 23-year run at the network. Prior to running ESPN+, Wolff had risen through ESPN’s international ranks, becoming EVP and managing director.
Another few dozen more ESPNers will be part of the next wave of cutbacks just prior to the summertime, according to an insider, and then decisions on contract renewals (or not) for talent will follow. Major on-air figures like Stephen A. Smith, Joe Buck and Chris Fowler, among others, are not going anywhere but given the changes sweeping through the sports world and the entire media business, a number of recognizable personalities will be on the list of cuts.
From a high point of almost 100 million U.S. households a decade ago, ESPN’s pay-TV penetration has fallen to 74 million, and the accompanying decline in carriage revenue has altered the economics of the main network and its flanker channels. ESPN+ has steadily added marquee live events, but is still viewed as a complement to the main bundled version of ESPN. As they manage the transition from linear to streaming, ESPN and Disney also still have multi-billion-dollar decisions to make about renewing key rights to sports like the NBA, whose current contract will expire in 2025.
Along with Wolff, another name to surface in the latest ESPN cuts is Mike Soltys, a VP and 43-year veteran of the company. Along with trading farewell messages with Dick Vitale and other colleagues on Twitter, Soltys shifted perspectives in acknowledging his departure by quote-tweeting a Sports Business Journal report. “My final statement as ESPN Spokesperson: ’43 Amazing Years. Wow. We wish him well.’”