ESPN Turns Freelance A1s Into Full-Time Employees
By: Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group
ESPN has just completed the transition of a number of its regular remote-operations freelance workers, including several A1 audio mixers for NBA and NFL, into staff employees. The project began over the summer. ESPN has declined to say how many new full-time staffers have joined the company.
The initiative, says ESPN VP of Communications Mike Soltys, is “part of a continuing effort to more efficiently produce a growing number of live events.” He emphasizes that this was not a cost-cutting exercise. The conversion of freelancers was considered a tactical move rather than a strategic one, giving the network more predictability in staffing remote events. ESPN laid off approximately 400 staffers in mid 2013.
According to ESPN sources, the former freelancers, who live in various parts of the country, would not have to relocate to the company’s Bristol headquarters and could continue to base themselves from home. They will receive the same benefits as other ESPN employees, including medical insurance. Given that some new employees would, as freelancers, typically work for a number of networks, particularly as major-league franchises signed new contracts with successive networks, some may be eligible to “grandfather” in some outside work between ESPN assignments.
Although ESPN has not disclosed the number of freelancers who were asked to convert to employee status and the number who agreed to or declined, the company will continue to use freelance technical personnel for remote live broadcast operations, supplied through various crewing services and other channels, a source says. A source outside the network tells SVG that those chosen for employee status had worked regularly on ongoing shows.
Several A1s who accepted the arrangement declined to comment on it, citing personal reasons or ESPN policy.
Denis Ryan, who has mixed NASCAR for ESPN, declined the transition offer, in part because ESPN’s contract with NASCAR ended this year and remaining freelance will allow him to continue to mix the sport for NBC, which will share the season with Turner Sports through 2024; freelancing also allows him take other opportunities — or not — as they come along.
“One of the concerns,” he explains, “was that, as a staffer, I’d be obligated to take whatever assignments they tell me to. For some A1s, he adds, conversion to employee status is a positive thing, guaranteeing steady income and benefits, things rarely assured to the self-employed. He notes that the terms of the conversion would have allowed up to three “discretionary refusals” of assignments a year.
ESPN would not comment on employee pay or freelance compensation, but Ryan says that, once the value of benefits were figured in, the differential between the two seemed not to be significant.
“The real difference seems to be between the freedom and the risk that comes with working freelance and the security of the paycheck,” he says. “It seems, [for] people that work almost exclusively for ESPN/ABC, it made financial sense.”
Ryan also notes that ESPN is likely motivated by the continued shallowness of the pool of competent, reliable freelance A1s and A2s in the market.
“The pool is shallow, no doubt,” he says. “With all the new sports networks starting up and all the live shows, this gives [ESPN] some guaranteed availability for A1s.”
According to ESPN’s Soltys, the decision to offer employee status to a number of the network’s long-time freelancers came out of intensive discussions. “It is a change to the culture,” he agrees, given the heavily freelance-based crewing approach in the U.S. versus the nearly all-employee philosophy found in Europe. “We definitely thought about that.”