Pat McAfee Shatters Old TV Rules And Shows How Much ESPN’s Game Is Changing  

Rexa Vella

Pat McAfee Shatters Old TV Rules And Shows How Much ESPN’s Game Is Changing  

ESPN has been giving one of its newest show hosts a lot of rope despite a years-long policy of keeping talent on a very short leash.

Pat McAfee has generated reams of unwanted publicity for the Disney-backed sports-media giant in recent days, allowing frequent guest Aaron Rodgers to spread misinformation about vaccinations; insulting Norby Williamson, an influential ESPN executive who manages many studio shows and tries to keep a tight rein on them, and accusing him of working to sabotage his show in talks to media outlets; and giving Rodgers room to call out Jimmy Kimmel, the ABC late-night host who is one of the most high-profile employees in the Disney empire.

Interestingly, few of the controversies that have surfaced on McAfee’s show have anything to do with ESPN’s raison d’etre: games and sports. Such a program is “unsustainable,” says Joel Lulla, a former attorney for ABC Sports and IMG who is a lecturer at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

But McAfee’s antics fill a need in an era when more of the cable customers who pay billions in fees to ESPN are leaving for streaming-video frontiers. “It appears ESPN is willing to tolerate a lot to have this level of attention,” says Nicole Kraft, director of Ohio State University’s Sports & Society Initiative.

ESPN on Wednesday seemed to gain new control over McAfee, who told his viewers that Rodgers, a regular guest who is paid for his appearances, would stop appearing while this NFL season is in play. No one said Rodgers would not return.

In the past, ESPN has demonstrated a near zero-tolerance for similar antics, even cutting off some of its most prominent personnel. ESPN in 2017 yanked a new show called “Barstool Van Talk” off the air 10 days after launching a partnership with Barstool Sports, the one-time upstart sports-media site that delivers raunch and outrageous commentary. Barstool staffers had taken to social media to criticize longtime ESPN staffer Sam Ponder after she took issue with Barstool articles online. Last year, ESPN parted ways with Sage Steele, a veteran anchor and host who came under management’s scrutiny in 2021 after making comments on an outside podcast about getting vaccinated and criticizing ESPN’s coronavirus policy, saying that “it’s sick and it’s scary.”

The network has even thwarted personnel with whom it enjoyed a previously great relationship. In 2017, ESPN pulled the plug on a reworked version of its 6 p.m. “Sports Center” that allowed co-hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith to talk about social issues and broader cultural topics, and even advocate certain positions. Hill was suspended after taking to social media to call then-President Trump a “white supremacist” and calling for her followers to boycott the Dallas Cowboys. ESPN in 2018 pulled its colorful former host Michelle Beadle off of the then-nascent morning program “Get Up” after she announced on the show that she was no longer watching football due to the way the sport treated women — just before the NFL and college-football seasons are set to begin in earnest.

During his short time on ESPN’s schedule, McAfee has managed to trip similar sensibilities, yet his show remains intact. The company in recent days has issued statements noting that Rodgers’ quips about Kimmel were “dumb and factually incorrect” and “should never have happened.” As for McAfee’s on-air targeting of Williamson, whom he accused of trying to undermine his program by disseminating ratings information to media outlets, ESPN said, “No one is more committed to and invested in ESPN’s success than Norby Williamson. At the same time, we are thrilled with the multi-platform success that we have seen from ‘The Pat McAfee Show’ across ESPN. We will handle this matter internally and have no further comment.”

ESPN did not make executives available for comment.

Some damage appears to be done. Many observers agree Tuesday’s McAfee broadcast, during which Rodgers was given free rein to rant about vaccinations, was not ESPN’s finest moment. Williamson may remain under an industry microscope, as those who do business with ESPN monitor whether the company continues to back him. A person familiar with the matter suggested executives would focus on getting both McAfee and Williamson to work through any perceived issues and think more about the company’s overall success.

Under the aegis of Jimmy Pitaro, Disney’s current sports chief, ESPN has tried to tamp down employee commentary about politics and cultural issues. The executive’s predecessor, John Skipper, tended to allow staffers to sound off more often, then would issue disciplinary measures depending on public reaction. Pitaro is less a fan of punishing people in public view, choosing instead to work things out through internal discussion.

“We are not a political organization. We are a sports-media company. And our focus is on serving the sports fans,” Pitaro told Variety in 2018, just after he was elevated to lead ESPN.

To be sure, some sports fans thrive on debates around the wider world of sports. McAfee’s hire in some ways reflects that, as ESPN seeks to keep current with aficionados who can find any number of outside podcasts, videocasts and audio programs that chew up the issues of the day that have little to do with touchdowns, home runs or free-throw percentages. Fox Corp. in 2021 bought Outkick, a sports-and-commentary site led by conservative pundit Clay Travis. Two popular former ESPN personalities, Dan Le Batard and Pablo Torre, now hold forth on shows backed by Meadowlark Media, founded by Le Batard and John Skipper.

In a different era, people who left ESPN were consigned to new obscurity. But in an era of mobile video, subscription-based digital sites and social media, anyone can launch their hot take into the sport-o-sphere. You don’t have to be on Disney to hit a sports-media home run.

ESPN can’t afford to alienate its die-hards or cede the battle to alternative sports sites. The company’s business has long hinged on the outsize programming fees it takes in from cable and satellite distributors. As more consumers migrate to streaming venues — boosted in recent months as NBCUniversal, Apple, Amazon and Warner Bros. Discovery create bespoke streaming sports products — ESPN’s distribution revenue is under threat. Disney said in October that ESPN generated approximately $4.06 billion in revenue in the third quarter, down from around $4.1 billion in the second quarter and about $4.4 billion in the first.

Enter Pat McAfee. ESPN is essentially licensing his program over a five-year period and is said to be paying $85 million. No one is building a new program around McAfee, but rather adopting one the host has already built. McAfee’s show is produced by his own staff, not by ESPN employees, so the network has less control over its daily ebb and flow. But the younger viewers who like McAfee’s stuff are what the network needs.

“The Pat McAfee Show” runs on ESPN’s YouTube properties as well as on ESPN+, and replaced a more straitlaced show led by former “First Take” co-host Max Kellerman. McAfee seems able to bypass norms on profanity and subject matter, and appeals to a younger viewer who craves more authenticity in a media personalities and less of the artifice of one-to-many broadcasting that has been the norm of the medium for years.

“There’s a lot of of yelling in sports now,” says Kraft. “That’s what people like to engage with. That’s a very popular model. That’s what fans seem to be looking for, is real aggressive engagement.”

Even so, it doesn’t take a Bob Costas or Dick Schaap to understand that anti-vax rages and on-air rants about ESPN executives that few average viewers recognize don’t make for professional TV. McAfee may care only for the sports fans who tune in to this program, but there are other audiences to think about, including advertisers and investors. Those are two constituencies that ESPN — and Disney — can’t afford to ignore.

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