What to make of Pat McAfee’s big move and ESPN’s big spend amid layoffs

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In the world of Big Media, the month of May is upfront season, when content companies invite the advertising community and other assorted suits for a presentation on why said company has the best content in the business (and thus, please give us your money). Media companies want to make news at these events, which is why you’ll see new shows and new talent announced. Last week, at their presentation at the North Javits Center in Manhattan, Disney announced that Pat McAfee has entered a new multi-year agreement with ESPN, and his weekday sports talk program, “The Pat McAfee Show,” will move to ESPN this fall. In addition to hosting the daily show, McAfee will continue his college football analyst role on “College GameDay,” and host alternate presentations of ESPN college football telecasts.

It’s a major and expensive talent acquisition — FanDuel was paying McAfee and Co. $120 million over four years, so this gives you the floor on what ESPN is paying — and it comes at a time when ESPN has been undergoing significant layoffs and cost-cutting. Naturally, it’s a big topic of interest in sports media circles, so I asked The Ringer’s editor-at-large and media writer Bryan Curtis and Washington Post sports and media writer Ben Strauss to join me in a discussion that I hope will provide insight on the move. If you want to listen to our entire conversation via audio, you can click here.

How did you view McAfee bringing his base of operation to ESPN?

Curtis: The classic (ESPN chairman) Jimmy Pitaro free agent acquisition. It really speaks to Pitaro’s approach to roster-building at ESPN, which is, go find somebody who’s really famous, give them a contract at the top of the market or that resets the top of the market, then put them on ESPN, not just for an hour or even two hours, but basically throughout the broadcast day so that eventually you get to this vision of ESPN where you have a very tiny number of people who are doing huge chunks of ESPN programming.

As McAfee said in his announcement, it’s going to go Greeny (Mike Greenberg) to Stephen A. (Smith) to McAfee. I don’t know if we know exactly how many hours McAfee is going to be on (the main ESPN channel), but we’re talking already six, seven hours of programming by three people. Then they’re going to come back in prime time as we’ve seen with Greenberg and Stephen A. and do more stuff. To me, that is the vision, and, of course, all that is happening as layoffs are happening at ESPN. ESPN is cutting people who are at the middle or bottom of the roster pay-wise for these stars.

Strauss: I think Brian’s right — it’s very Jimmy Pitaro — but I think there’s something else that Pitaro looks at. He talks about fans all the time and metrics. In this world of who is at the top, you can see exactly where some of these big audiences are today on digital and social in ways that you didn’t used to before. That’s probably true in all places in media. The New York Times is trying to figure out how to keep their star reporters because they could go to Puck or Politico for more money to be columnists. In the Substack-ified world, the people at the top have realized they are more valuable and they can take their audience to more places. Pitaro is happy to pay for that. You have the top of the market, which has become more valuable, and at the same time, the middle of the market is becoming less valuable in most decision-makers’ eyes. McAfee is a guy who is really fan-centric and has a connection to a sizable group of fans that Pitaro wants.


Pat McAfee joining ESPN

What I have found in the limited times I have written about McAfee on The Athletic — he pops as a subject. It reminds me of the days when anything written about Bill Simmons would draw significant page views. You see this on social media with McAfee as well. What have you noticed about his popularity and appeal in different avenues?

Curtis: The moment that stuck out to me was two WrestleManias ago when I was sitting at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Pat McAfee came down the aisle to wrestle a match. Now, this is not media in the conventional sense of the word, but that stadium was electric. This is 90,000 people that went completely bananas. That is not something that any of the people who normally reside in our three columns would exactly get. So what you’re talking about is not just this big following through the YouTube show and the podcast, you’re talking about touching all these different worlds. It’s this huge sort of mass of people that will follow him anywhere or will read an article by somebody like us about him.

Strauss: Maybe I should write about it more (laughs) … McAfee’s show sort of dovetails with the NFL in the way they want to cover the NFL. His Aaron Rodgers interviews during the season were some of the most news-making enterprises of an entire NFL season. It was must-listen-to. I don’t know if it was riveting, but it was news. I think like he announced his darkness retreat on Pat McAfee’s show and he announced that he was going to the Jets on Pat McAfee’s show. Obviously, ESPN likes when it can make the news and cover the news and contain the news cycle within all of ESPN’s platforms. He’s made a lot of news on that show.

Curtis: You know, it’s funny because he is not a reporter with a capital R or journalist with a capital J, but he’s very, very savvy about the media. I think that’s probably an underrated aspect of him. I’ll go on Twitter on a morning when the No. 1 story in sports is some LIV golf thing, which we can agree is probably not right in Pat’s wheelhouse topic-wise, and there is a Pat McAfee segment on LIV golf being pushed out. So I think there’s great programming intelligence behind that show where it’s like, yeah, we’re going to talk football, we’re going to do Pat stuff, we’re going to have all this fun, but we’re also going to hit these content marks that we need to hit and make sure that we are talking about all the things that are at the top of the trending topics list.

Give a shoutout to the producers working alongside him for that, such as producer Ty Schmit, because they have a real sense of digital media. We did see on social media, particularly on Twitter, some blowback about McAfee signing with ESPN. From my perspective, this wasn’t even a decision. If ESPN comes to you and says we’re going to pay you either equivalent or more than what FanDuel did, we will provide you with incredible distribution and incredible production support, and if it doesn’t work out, oh, well, you walk away at 40 years old with generational wealth for not just you but you’ve set up all your buddies on the show as millionaires, what exactly is the decision? There is no decision.

The only downside I see is, yeah, he’s got to deal with some people who believe he sold out to ESPN. So this leads me to this: Will ESPN change McAfee? I don’t think you pay that much money unless you’re paying for what he is. Secondly, he’s not an overtly political person. In terms of downside risk for the McAfee group, I don’t think there’s any. How do you guys see this?

Curtis: I totally agree with you. He (McAfee) just doesn’t have interest in that kind of stuff. He’s not going to make ESPN mad because he’s talking about that kind of stuff. I think the other thing about him that’s notable is his adaptability to his surroundings. If you watch him on WWE calling matches, he doesn’t go in and be like, “My job here is to be Pat McAfee and to put myself over.” No, it’s to learn the storylines, to execute what was then Vince McMahon’s vision and put over the wrestlers. If you watch him on “GameDay” this year, he’s sitting right in the middle of the desk and going, “I need to genuflect before Coach (Lee) Corso right now, I need to let Herby (Kirk Herbstreit) take care of this right now. It was all about figuring out what my place in this universe is.” He’s very smart about that. I think he’ll go into ESPN with the whole idea of, “How do I fit in (at) Disney, how do I fit into this network, but also how do I preserve enough of myself that my fans aren’t going to think I’m different?”

I wanted to ask you about this mega-deal coming as ESPN is laying off people.

Strauss: Do you not do this signing because you’re doing these layoffs? I think that’s probably unfair to the company. It’s up to us to look at it and say this is, you know, a little unseemly. This is tough for a lot of people. But I think internally is the most important thing. How do people inside ESPN feel being in this world where you are going to pick five or six people and give them all the money in the world and for everyone else, if you can get a better offer, take it? I sort of wonder what that does to the morale of the company and what it feels like to work there when there’s sort of a clear decision that there are these people that really matter and we’re just not sure about everybody else. It’s less an optics thing and more just how does it feel to work at ESPN? Do you feel good going to work at that place right now? I think morale is pretty low and people have a hard time with this most recent round of layoffs. And there’s going to be another one.

I think that is a smart way to look at it. Forget how it looks as an external story — how does it feel if you are, say, an operations person who works every day at Bristol’s campus.

Curtis: Yeah, I totally agree with Ben. Not only giving all these people the money, but giving them this enormous amount of power and leeway to do whatever the hell they want. We could probably argue that the five or six most powerful on-camera people in ESPN history all work at the network right now.

McAfee has been able to have anybody he’s wanted as a guest, including major competitors of ESPN. Ian Rapoport, a competitor of Adam Schefter, is on McAfee’s show a lot and has hosted the show. Shams Charania, who works for The Athletic and other entities, is a big competitor of Adrian Wojnarowski. Fox Sports and Amazon Sports staffers have been on McAfee, and the list goes. I don’t think they will say, “Pat, you cannot have X on,” but I do wonder as time goes on if ESPN management starts to say, “Hey, why don’t you bring Woj in for his breaking news?” How do you think that’s going to play?

Curtis: Well, the good news is insiders all like each other and there’s no competition between them (laughs). It’s kind of a fascinating question, and it might be the way the show changes the most. I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN insiders are putting up their hands to be on McAfee. They realize what it can do for them. I’m sure Rapaport has been like, “Man, this has been great for me,” especially as a personality outside of like a tweet or a piece of breaking NFL news.

If you had to guess today, how forceful is ESPN management using a soft hand to say, “Hey, we’d really like you to use our insiders as opposed to the high-profile insiders that compete against our high-profile insiders?”

Curtis: I think the 1 to 1 in the major sports (who don’t work for ESPN) would be a really tough sell to put on that show regularly. Absolutely. … Because the insiders are the other most powerful people at ESPN. We left them off the list.

Strauss: I don’t think it will be a heavy-handed hammer. I think it’s sort of like we hope Pat realizes this is what he should do. Like, we hope we don’t have to have this conversation. We hope he sees the optics and sort of makes that decision on his own.

Some nice sports television from PGA golfer Michael Block and CBS Sports golf reporter Amanda Renner.

Episode 302 of the Sports Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features Mark Shapiro, the president and COO of Endeavor, the Hollywood entertainment and sports giant. In this podcast, Shapiro discusses what makes someone a differentiator in sports media talent in 2023; why WWE was the right property for Endeavor; the domestic rights deals for WWE’s “Raw” and “Smackdown” programming coming up in 2024; how the WWE can expand within the Endeavor ecosystem; working with WWE CEO Nick Khan; how Mark sees the legacy companies heavily into sports streaming; Netflix becoming part of the sports ecosystem; the nexus of sports gambling and media; the strategies Apple and Amazon have used in sports; why Adam Silver is in such an advantageous position with the upcoming NBA rights negotiation; the upcoming College Football Playoff negotiation; how ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro recalibrated ESPN’s relationship with the NFL; the explosive growth for women’s sports and more.

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and more.

Some things I read over the last week that were interesting to me:

• I Placed my First Wager When I was 10. I’ve Gambled More than $1 Million Since. By Noah Vineberg of Maclean’s.

• Letters to Brittney: The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings on the correspondence that sustained Brittney Griner in prison.

• The 101 best California experiences. By the staff of the L.A. Times.

• Tim Layden on the life of Jim Brown.

• Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. interviews Martin Scorcese.

• Xi Jinping’s Succession Problem — and China’s. By Chun Han Wong of The Wall Street Journal.

• Olympic Swimming in the Seine? How Paris Is Remaking a River. By Catherine Porter of The New York Times.

• ‘The Driving Force’: How Brett Favre’s Demands for Cash Fueled a Scandal. By Michael Rosenberg of SI.

• ‘Digital Twin’ of the Titanic Shows the Shipwreck in Stunning Detail. By April Rubin of The New York Times.

• The Plot to Steal the Other Secret Inside a Can of Coca-Cola. By Drake Bennett and Jordan Robertson of Bloomberg Businessweek.

• How Do You Actually Help a Suicidal Teen. By Maggie Jones.

• Jeffrey Epstein Appeared to Threaten Bill Gates Over Microsoft Co-Founder’s Affair With Russian Bridge Player. By Khadeeja Safdar and Emily Glazer of The Wall Street Journal.

• NBC’s Tim Layden on another tragic day at the track.

• Nine Rounds of Interviews and No Call Back: It’s Harder Than Ever to Land a White-Collar Job. By Te-Ping Chen and Ray A. Smith of The Wall Street Journal.

• Greece Says It Doesn’t Ditch Migrants at Sea. It Was Caught in the Act. By Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Sarah Kerr, Kassie Bracken and Nimet Kirac of The New York Times.

• Jim Brown’s legacy clouded by allegations of domestic violence. By John H. Tucker of Cleveland.com.

• Could a passenger really land a plane? We put it to the test in a flight simulator. By Andrea Sachs of The Washington Post.

(Photo: Mike Lawrie / Getty Images)

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