ESPN knew Pat McAfee would bend the foundations. Then he blew them up.


Pat McAfee watches a sport between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Indianapolis. Darron Cummings / AP

Earlier than they employed Pat McAfee, ESPN executives decided: They couldn’t change the YouTube star.

The tank-top-wearing former punter would by definition have to be dealt with in a different way than anybody who had ever labored for the sports activities media big. It was essential, executives all the best way as much as Chairman Jimmy Pitaro thought, that McAfee assist ESPN reestablish its cachet with youthful sports activities followers.

So ESPN made concessions. They licensed McAfee’s present, which gave them much less oversight of content material; they allowed profanity; they blessed McAfee’s tank tops. Executives additionally mentioned how they might take care of the fallout when McAfee inevitably stated one thing that drew public scrutiny, together with insulting a enterprise companion just like the NBA or NFL.

Some inside ESPN hoped to duplicate the form of diplomatic immunity seemingly loved by Charles Barkley, the face of TNT’s NBA protection. McAfee, they thought, might finally be like Barkley: loud and opinionated, but in addition granted a get-out-of-jail-free card to say issues others couldn’t.

The community knew there could be some rising pains – a number of information cycles that may check these limits. The previous two weeks, although, went past something the community troubleshooted.

Considered one of his paid friends, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, made inferences about Jimmy Kimmel’s connection to the serial abuser Jeffrey Epstein. Rodgers returned to the present and stated he had not referred to as Kimmel a pedophile however didn’t apologize – earlier than launching right into a 20-minute rant about vaccine efficacy. McAfee, in the meantime, referred to as a longtime senior govt a “rat” on ESPN’s airwaves.

In between, there have been cryptic tweets from McAfee with clips from “Scarface” and a seven-minute monologue by Kimmel – whose late-night ABC present, like ESPN, is a part of the Disney household – through which he referred to as Rodgers “too smug to know the way ignorant he’s.”

ESPN’s and Disney’s prime executives had been silent by all of it, however on Wednesday, McAfee introduced Rodgers wouldn’t return to his present this season, and McAfee later issued a long missive on social media. (Rodgers then made a quick football-focused look Thursday.)

“I definitely don’t love that I’ve discovered myself in political wars and public beefs due to one thing {that a} visitor has stated on our present or one thing that my dumb a– has stated,” McAfee wrote. “I believe what I’ve come to comprehend is that it’s gonna include the territory of this enterprise. We’re far more conscious of that now.”

The week-long episode was among the many most fractious within the community’s historical past and has left loads inside ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus pondering each about McAfee’s future, the community’s, and whether or not his ascension – and defiance – alerts a brand new period for the TV behemoth. This story is predicated on interviews with practically a dozen folks in and round ESPN, together with present and former workers and executives, most of whom spoke on the situation of anonymity, fearing skilled repercussions. ESPN declined to remark.

McAfee sits on the intersection of two basic questions for ESPN. The primary is as outdated because the community: whether or not its energy lies in its platform or the expertise. The second is whether or not it’s potential for ESPN to be each a TV community and a cutting-edge digital and streaming platform.

In one in all his segments final week, McAfee lambasted an outdated guard at ESPN that he stated is out to get his present, calling them “outdated hags.” He named a selected govt, Norby Williamson, publicly accusing him of “sabotaging” the present by taking part in a job in a narrative within the New York Submit about his flagging linear TV scores.

ESPN has a historical past of suspending expertise who’ve spoken out towards colleagues or the corporate, from Tony Kornheiser to Keith Olbermann to Invoice Simmons. Williamson, a polarizing determine at ESPN, has by no means been shy about his perception that expertise is subservient to the ESPN model, and he famously clashed with stars Stuart Scott and Jemele Hill. Final week, former ESPN host Dan Le Batard suggested Williamson had played a role in his exit from ESPN, too.

A number of years in the past, Williamson instructed The Washington Submit: “The notion turned that you could possibly simply roll a expertise on the market and it doesn’t matter what she or he is saying – that the content material didn’t matter. I simply by no means believed that.”

The present media panorama is extra fractured, however the greatest stars at ESPN – most notably Stephen A. Smith – have been given increased and better salaries, extra latitude to pursue outdoors tasks and to speak about no matter they need. Smith reportedly earns $12 million a 12 months; McAfee reportedly is at $15 million with 4 and a half years left on the deal that started within the fall.

McAfee has gotten away with testing the boundaries, a minimum of for now, as a result of Pitaro and ESPN made an infinite wager on him. An ESPN govt with a digital background, Mike Foss, instructed The Submit final week that the way forward for ESPN might be pushed by folks like McAfee. “As you flip to direct-to-consumer…it’s a personality-driven business far more than a brand-driven business,” he stated.

Certainly, with cord-cutting consuming into the corporate’s cable subscribers – and ending the decades-long gravy prepare that got here with them – ESPN has spent the previous a number of years orchestrating a pivot to its direct-to-consumer streaming platform, deliberate for subsequent 12 months. TV continues to be the place income are, whereas a leaner digital future awaits. McAfee, whose best success has been as a YouTuber, is a bit of that technique. He, like ESPN, is attempting to succeed on the web and TV, the place audiences and profitable content material don’t look the identical and it’s troublesome to grasp each mediums.

Take into account Williamson and Foss.

“Let’s not overthink ‘SportsCenter.’ The purpose is to get extra folks to observe at this time than watched yesterday,” Williamson as soon as instructed his workers, as quoted in that Submit story from 2018.

Foss, in the meantime, instructed The Submit final week that the entire conception of success for a studio present goes to vary due to streaming: “Mitigating churn goes to be the important thing,” he stated. “Individuals coming to ESPN-Plus for a dwell occasion after which retaining that subscription due to the opposite issues obtainable to them, like Stephen A. [Smith], [Mike] Greenberg and McAfee.”

McAfee will possible supply some glimpse into ESPN’s evolution, whether or not he stays on the community or not, and his colleagues might be watching carefully. Some staffers this week questioned if the corporate’s muted response stemmed from a concern of the tradition wars – not eager to get referred to as “too woke” by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Others questioned how ESPN would possibly ever self-discipline a expertise once more prefer it as soon as did Simmons and Olbermann. Others questioned why McAfee couldn’t simply seem on YouTube and ESPN-Plus. Nonetheless others, extra sympathetic to McAfee, thought Rodgers had taken benefit of the segments.

(One govt stated they might have tried for an opt-out in McAfee’s contract, given his historical past and the size. ESPN declined to touch upon whether or not there may be any such clause in McAfee’s deal.)

Olbermann, the previous “SportsCenter” anchor who now hosts the “Countdown” podcast, questioned if McAfee cared in any respect about ESPN.

“I don’t begrudge Pat McAfee his success, and I don’t dare to criticize his model that acquired him right here,” Olbermann stated. “However I don’t assume he offers a rattling about ESPN as an establishment or what it has to take care of to be as profitable as it’s now, a lot much less stave off the deterioration of cable. If that wasn’t apparent beforehand, it was apparent this week.”

However loads of folks across the business additionally agreed that if it’s an ignominious second for ESPN, it’s additionally harmful for McAfee. He has labored for plenty of media retailers in his temporary profession, some with their very own contentious exits, and even when ESPN is lower than it as soon as was there may be nonetheless no different platform that provides the identical visibility and cash.

“The community all the time outlasts the expertise,” Olbermann stated.