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The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz has always existed in a strange vacuum of surreality where Le Batard’s inherent tension with ESPN becomes fodder for the program, and that has been the case once again this week.
On Sunday, Andrew Marchand reported in the New York Post that a big ESPN Radio shakeup could see Mike Greenberg returning to radio and Dan Le Batard exiting the network while remaining with the broader company. “There is a feeling among many that his program does not mesh with the tastes of Norby Williamson, who is ESPN’s executive vice president and the point person on ESPN Radio’s programming,” Marchand wrote. “Le Batard does more of a variety show rather than strictly sports.”
Le Batard at first addressed the story indirectly, opening his show on Tuesday by teasing a discussion about a big New York Post story only to pivot to a conversation about the newspaper’s coverage of a guy in Tennessee in a gorilla costume who got arrested in the middle of the day after apparently showing up at the wrong house.
The reaction was more substantive on Wednesday:
Le Batard discovered his producer Mike Ryan in a state of anxiety over communication from bosses at ESPN telling the show to stay away from the NY Post story. Edicts about content have always struck a nerve with Le Batard, as he has said repeatedly over the years that as the son of Cuban exiles he values freedom of speech over top dollar in his contract negotiations.
Thus, telling Le Batard not to discuss a topic on his show is a challenge he’ll nearly always accept, as he did here. “ESPN’s not telling us what to talk about,” Le Batard said. “That’s always been the case here.”
“The idea that there would be a newspaper story and any executive would have any issue — with me commenting on a newspaper story about us,” he continued. “When I’m in the radio content business I’m not going to really ignore that one when the story is not flattering to us, when ESPN has fired an employee [Adnan Virk] for talking to the media about stuff … ESPN doesn’t like to cover itself the way it does others, but hell if you’re gonna do that to me.”
Le Batard acknowledged the inherent tension that has always existed with his show at ESPN Radio about topic selection. For example, there was pushback over the years about weekly segments about animals with Ron Magill from the Miami Zoo. In 2016, Le Batard dared Miami radio station 790 the Ticket, which is where the show got its start and which at that point aired a local hour of the show, to fire him over pushback from discussing a Miami Herald story about a woman sentenced to 40 years in jail for performing illegal surgery on a man’s penis and mangling it.
Most people reading this probably remember last summer when Le Batard ripped Donald Trump and ESPN’s stay-away-from-politics policies. He was off-air for about a week, had what was characterized as a “positive conversation” with ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, and returned to his show without any real incidents (until now, so much as this episode counts as an incident).
While Le Batard inflects the tone of the word sports to mock ESPN’s executive or executives who wish he would stick to them, he says in the clip that he called people from the company who told him the story was not true. He added that the show has 2.5 years remaining on an expensive contract. Reached by Outkick, an ESPN spokesperson declined to comment on all this.
Where this goes from here — or when — is anyone’s guess. Le Batard’s podcast has been amongst ESPN’s most popular digital properties for years. The show’s fans are known to support sponsors. There is not a universal opinion amongst ESPN decision-makers about Le Batard — he has had his conflicts, but also staunch allies.
Speculatively, ESPN has two SiriusXM channels — what if they put Le Batard on the extra channel (no. 81) and let him talk about whatever he wants?
On a longer term time horizon, provided he does not opt to just ride off into the sunset, there are any number of entities where Le Batard could be a good fit if his time with ESPN is indeed circling the drain. Two off the top of my head: SiriusXM, which had discussions about signing him and potentially giving him a channel to build a la Chris Russo in 2018, and Spotify, which aspires to corner the podcast market. Spotify just acquired The Ringer from Le Batard’s good friend Bill Simmons; Jemele Hill and Ryen Russillo are fellow ESPN ex-pats creating content in that umbrella.
Of course, if Le Batard were to exit ESPN, it would get thrown in his face that he once said people like Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless would get lost leaving by the Mothership. Luckily for Le Batard, he happened to be wrong. As with Dan Patrick and Bill Simmons, Cowherd and Bayless did not get lost. As the marketplace has grown increasingly fragmented, tentpole personalities have portable audiences, and Le Batard’s would be valuable to a number of platforms.
Disclosure: Outkick’s founder Clay Travis is a colleague of Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd at FS1.