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At ESPN, Fear Gives Talents Leverage

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ESPN has momentum in the area of live sports. It is now a partner with the NHL, has a monopoly on the SEC, blew up ESPN+ with the UFC, and added a forthcoming Super Bowl broadcast. That’s hard to top. On the talent side, however, the trajectory is less promising. In fact, it’s not promising at all.

A large number of ESPN talent contracts have expired over the past 15 months, and it’s both telling and interesting that so many have left.

Publicly, the turnover has been marked as “salary slashing.” In part, that’s true. As it should, ESPN is reducing salaries. It has overpaid many on-air talents for years.

But there’s more to the story. Look deeper. Who is staying? Who is going?

If you were to list the lost and re-signed ESPN talents since March 2020, you’d see a common thread.

Here are notable names ESPN has lost: Will Cain, Mike Golic, Trey Wingo, Josina Anderson, Adam Amin, Bobby Carpenter, Jonathan Vilma, Kenny Mayne, Tom Rinaldi, and Ariel Helwani.

Quite the list.

By and large, every lost ESPN personality steered away from aggressive far-left politics. That doesn’t mean that none of them are on the left. It means that alleged social justice wasn’t their brand.

While some chose to leave on their own — Will Cain, Adam Amin, Tom Rinaldi —  keep in mind, ESPN has the resources to outbid all competitors. (ESPN lost Emmanuel Acho last spring, but he had signed with FS1 before his online Twitter show on race relations took off.) These people wanted to leave, and ESPN let them go.

By contrast, here’s who ESPN has re-signed since the start of the pandemic: Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Katie Nolan, Stan Verrett, Sarah Spain, Domonique Foxworth, and Michael Eaves.

This group is politically exclusive. Those who are in it share the same worldview, and each has an extensive history of calling Donald Trump, football owners or just Americans in general racist. (Though Dan Le Batard did as well, he forced his way to a buyout.)

Decent job, if you can get it.

Sources say that some of these personalities took pay cuts with offers still well above their outside market value.

Why would a network choose to get rid of Mike Golic, the stalwart of its radio division, but overpay for Bomani Jones, who had both a failed TV and a failed radio show? Why not Adam Amin, a top play-by-play commentator under the age of 40?

Take a deeper dive into the group that has been re-signed. Jones has made a career, and millions of dollars a year, labeling everything in sports racist.

Domonique Foxworth earned his extension after admitting that he roots against Josh Allen because Allen’s fans support — wait for it — the American flag and dogs. Damn them.

Sarah Spain finds everything offensive. Most recently, she falsely claimed that sports radio programs are geared exclusively for old white men, who will soon die.

Look at this:

By the way, we will all die. White or black, male or female, we are all going to go. Even me.

Stan Verrett’s entire Twitter account begs the woke to retweet him. He kept his job. His longtime co-host, Neil Everett — who’s more popular — may soon join the list of ESPN has-beens. Neil Everett doesn’t have a Twitter account.

Michael Eaves was extended after he got Sage Steele kicked off a network special on race. How pathetic is that?

So why is this? Why would the leading network in sports fail to bring back so many key players in sports journalism and overpay for replaceable chips?

Anyone expecting a New York Times hit piece on Trey Wingo’s departure?

ESPN is making personnel decisions based on anticipated social media reaction, on potential PR wins and losses. ESPN is thus programming, not for its viewers, but for its critics.

What’s more of a headache: losing a personality who claims they were fired because they stood for BLM, spoke out against Trump, and campaigned for Colin Kaepernick; or losing someone who just reports sports news? Therein lies the explanation for these moves.

It’s not uncommon for a disgruntled former employee to take their frustrations to a media columnist to spin the story. The threat of it is leverage.

A talent has leverage if a network fears his or her departure. Historically, talent leverage was the result of one of two things: 1) the network didn’t have an adequate replacement. 2) the talent would elevate elsewhere. In this climate, however, leverage is based upon the fear of a made-up narrative. The threat — that word again — of the word “racist” drives decision-making.

OutKick asked ESPN if my observation is correct, the network said it did not have a comment.

ESPN employs a lot of talented people. Some of the best in the world. Yet they’ve been forced to take pay cuts and a backseat to the less valuable, who simply play the game better. Sportscasters are now incentivized to change, to pivot in a direction that moves them further away from who they were when they dreamed of one day talking sports for a living.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

19 Comments

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  1. ESPN has to be calculating the revenue they generate from the sports people like to watch will compensate for the merry band of leftists they air in between games. No one listens to Spain, Jones, Nolan or any of the others. They’re the WNBA of sports broadcasters. Being supported by the sports White men created and like to watch.

  2. Like nearly everyone I know, I haven’t turned on an ESPN’s studio show in years. They’re searching for relevancy by kowtowing to the only group that might find them relevant; those too lazy or unable to consume media/sports content from sources other than TV. I watch them for live college sports, Monday Night Football and an occasional soccer game. Unless Mark “I learned a big word once and will use it in EVERY GAME I CALL” Jones is on PBP, then I’ll find something else.

  3. Outside of live sports, ESPN is unwatchable. Yet I don’t watch ANY live sporting event on ESPN…MLB, NFL, or soon to be the NHL, because of what the network stands for. Though the leagues have also made the decision not to watch much easier.

  4. ESPN’s fall from grace is truly one of the most shocking and depressing story arcs of the last 30 years of business. To go from being almost universally loved to being closer to universally loathed in such a short time is really impressive. It’s also sad to those of us who grew up watching when it was actually about sports.

  5. Bobby please ask some of the tech guys to cut back on the *excessive* never ending pop up ads. It legitimately makes visiting this site less fun.

    I like your writing. I want to enjoy it without having to deal with all that nonsense in my face.
    -much thanks

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