ESPN executive’s Pat McAfee’s on-air slam shows network power shift

ESPN executive's Pat McAfee's on-air slam shows network power shift


ESPN is undergoing a rapid transformation as it transforms from a television company to a streaming company. But if the extraordinary events of the past week are any indication, the transformation of its corporate culture is just as seismic.

For decades, ESPN’s biggest star was ESPN. A long list of its most famous employees — like Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons and Dan Le Batard — clashed with executives, and the story always ended the same way: Those employees left, and ESPN moved on.

But last week Pat McAfee, the Indianapolis Colts punter turned new-media shock jock and ESPN star, directly criticized a powerful executive at the Disney-owned network, calling him a “rat.” Not only was Mr. McAfee not fired, but he was not punished at all, shocking current and former ESPN executives and employees.

“We know there is no more offensive offense in the universe of ESPN and Disney than host-on-host offense, or talent-on-talent offense,” said Jemele Hill, a former “Sportscenter” host who left ESPN in 2018. Was. Officer, said last week,

To complicate matters even further, a few days ago, Aaron Rodgers, the New York Jets quarterback and a regular paid guest on Mr. McAfee’s daily afternoon talk show, said during an appearance that a lot of people, “including Jimmy Kimmel,” It was expected that the court would not make public the list of associates of disgraced financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Mr. Kimmel’s late-night talk show airs on ABC, which is also owned by Disney.

It used to be that executives at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., considered publicly criticizing a colleague to be practically the worst thing an employee could do.

Tony Kornheiser was removed for two weeks for commenting on Hannah Storm’s clothing. Mr. Simmons was suspended from social media twice, once for a feud with an ESPN-owned radio station and the second time for criticizing the network’s popular show “First Take.” Mr Olbermann was suspended for going on Comedy Central and calling Bristol a “God-forsaken place”.

But Mr. McAfee’s escape has highlighted his unusual arrangement with ESPN, which licenses but does not own his shows. It also reflects ESPN executives’ bond by empowering Mr. McAfee as the company transitions from the cable era to the streaming and social media era, which it has entered with less success so far.

Mr. McAfee is an ESPN employee who appears on some of its college football and National Football League shows, as well as a contractor who produces “The Pat McAfee Show,” which is shown for several hours on both the ESPN cable channels and goes. ESPN+ streaming service.

Mr. McAfee previously worked for Barstool Sports Media Company, FanDuel Sports Betting Company and World Wrestling Entertainment, and arrived at ESPN with a large and loyal audience. His show is a freewheeling shoutfest reminiscent of Don Imus or Howard Stern, with a recurring cast of characters and far more profanity than ESPN allows most shows.

Last week he called Norby Williamson, who has worked at ESPN since 1985 and is officially Executive Editor and Head of Event and Studio Productiona rat.” Mr. McAfee also accused him of leaking unflattering ratings data for his show New York Post,

“Some people from within ESPN are actively trying to harm us,” Mr. McAfee said on air. “Specifically, I believe Norby Williamson is the individual who is attempting to sabotage our program.”

In a statement over the weekend, ESPN said positive things about both individuals, and said the company “will handle this matter internally and will have no further comment.” Mr. McAfee and Mr. Williamson did not respond to messages requesting comment, and ESPN declined to make them or any of the executives available for interviews.

Then there is Mr. Rodgers, whose weekly appearances on Mr. McAfee’s show sometimes include anti-vaccine diatribes and have become increasingly unpredictable. After Mr Kimmel – who was not named on the court-released Epstein list – threatened to sue mr rogers, Mr. McAfee apologized for his part, saying that he thought Mr. Rodgers was trying to anger Mr. Kimmel as part of a petty feud between the two. Mr. Rodgers did not apologize when he appeared on the show Tuesday, but said that ESPN executives and others in the news media misinterpreted his comments.

While Mr. McAfee seemed somewhat uncomfortable amid the clash between Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Kimmel, he did not apologize for his criticism of Mr. Williamson. In fact, he repeated it.

“We love Burke Magnus,” Mr. McAfee said on his show Monday, naming a parade of top ESPN and Disney executives who are more powerful than Mr. Williamson. “Love Burke Magnus. And also love Jimmy Pitaro. Love from Bob Iger. But there is a lot of transition here between the old and the new. “And the old people don’t like what the new people are doing.”

Speaking about Mr Williamson, he said he was not taking back “anything I said about that person” and was “just a couple of old people” who did not understand what the future would be like.

Norby Williamson, who oversees “Sportscenter”, has been a powerful figure at the network for many years.Credit…Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Mr. Williamson has long been a powerful but divisive figure within ESPN. “The joke was that they couldn’t get rid of him, and now he has more power than ever,” Mr. Simmons. said on his podcast In 2017, Mr Williamson was compared to the power-hungry and Machiavellian character Littlefinger from “Game of Thrones”.

Mr. Williamson’s domain has long been “Sportscenter,” which he obsessively promotes within ESPN. While other top executives focus on big-picture issues, Mr. Williamson is known for sending emails focusing on the smallest changes to the show, and he has a Reputation for liking traditional meat and potatoes The edition of “Sportscenter” focuses on highlights.

It is not clear where the dispute between Mr Williamson and Mr McAfee may have started. Mr. McAfee’s arrival at the company moved the afternoon show of “Sportscenter” from ESPN to ESPN2, but the two otherwise operate in separate domains.

It may be that this fight is part of a larger struggle over power within the network, and whether it should rest to a greater extent with on-air talent or with executives.

Mr McAfee is in the first year of a five-year deal He is reportedly paid a total of $85 million, ESPN would not want to deal with the consequences of prematurely terminating that contract, especially when Mr. McAfee is one of its star personalities and spends hours a day on television.

One possible reason why Mr. McAfee escaped punishment is that, while Mr. Williamson had never been so publicly criticized by an ESPN employee, it was not the first time that someone at the network confronted him and considered him weak. being done.

“These people finally did this to us with a series of strategic, well-planned leaks,” Mr. Le Batard. said on monday On his podcast, he mentioned his battles with Mr. Williamson and others and his eventual departure from ESPN three years ago.

Mr. Le Batard once had a stern warning for employees like himself who were troubled by ESPN’s strictness. “Don’t leave ESPN, man,” he said on radio in 2016. “ESPN is a monstrous platform that is responsible for all of our successes.”

But in 2023, at least as far as Mr. McAfee is concerned, his opinion has changed.

“This is a man who has all his powers and he is renting them out,” Mr. Le Batard said on his show. “The moment he gets out there, he’s going to be even bigger than he was any time before Disney was too hot to handle. He has nothing to fear here, and this is what scares them.”





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