Column: ESPN Radio Can't Find Its Next 'Mike & Mike' or Colin Cowherd

Fox Sports Radio has named Brady Quinn, LaVar Arrington, and Jonas Knox the permanent co-hosts of its morning show, as OutKick reported Monday. FSR's morning time slot opened after Clay Travis moved to news-talk radio with Buck Sexton in June. Quinn, Arrington, and Knox join Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, and Doug Gottlieb in a head-to-head battle with ESPN Radio from 6 am to 6 pm ET, the window before local sports stations transition to live games. However, FSR's new lineup will likely face a series of different opponents at ESPN in the coming years. 

ESPN Radio has reinvented itself each football season since Colin Cowherd left for Fox Sports and iHeart in 2015. In response, ESPN moved the Dan Le Batard Show from afternoon drive to Cowherd's former 10 am to 1 pm time slot. In addition, the company filled Le Batard's vacancy from 4 to 7 pm with Bomani Jones. Network executives were high on the transition. ESPN Radio saw the Le Batard Show as the most innovative show in sports talk, and they thought Jones would be the next radio star. But the rest of the country didn't agree.

Le Batard quickly lost Cowherd's Los Angeles affiliate, the preeminent market for a national broadcast from 7 to 10 am PT. See, Le Batard is a digital draw. He does not appeal to terrestrial radio listeners outside of Miami. ESPN should have moved Le Batard to a digital-only format by 2018. Instead, it kept him on its affiliates, which responded by going local.

Meanwhile, Bomani Jones tanked ESPN Radio's listenership in the afternoon. Jones lost over 90 affiliates and recorded the lowest ratings in the network's history.

ESPN canceled Jones' radio show in 2017 and ended Le Batard's in 2020 after agreeing to a buyout.

The Le Batard-Bomani Jones combination was not the answer to Cowherd's departure. Traug Keller, ESPN's Senior VP of Audio at the time, later even admitted that the network couldn't replace Cowherd.

"I do regret letting Colin Cowherd get away," Keller said in 2020.

Losing Cowherd in 2015 hurt ESPN Radio, and the network made things worse for itself when it ended Mike & Mike in 2017 after nearly two decades on the air. Mike Greenberg moved off Mike and Mike for a daily TV show, Get Up, and ESPN replaced him with Trey Wingo. 

Despite initial hope, Wingo did not fit as the new Greeny and did not click alongside Mike Golic. As a result, Golic & Wingo never matched the industry-leading revenue that Mike & Mike generated. In addition, Wingo didn't like morning radio and made it known to executives that he wanted off the show. As a result, ESPN finally moved Wingo last summer, which spelled the end of his career at the network.

Without the star power of Colin Cowherd and the popularity of Mike & Mike, ESPN Radio's reach, relevancy, and revenue crumbled. The network tried to weather this storm by moving Stephen A. Smith from SiriusXM's Mad Dog Radio to ESPN Radio in 2017. ESPN first aired the Stephen A. Smith Show from 1 to 3 pm ET in both New York and Los Angeles, then later nationally syndicated the program by bumping Ryen Russillo out of his time slot. 

The Russillo move is noteworthy in its own right. Russillo was one of ESPN's most talented radio hosts, though the network never treated him as such. After shifting his first co-host Scott Van Pelt to SportsCenter at midnight then releasing his later co-host Danny Kanell from the network entirely, ESPN planned to move Russillo to 3-6 pm to follow Smith, who had just bumped him out of his slot. The idea was to pair Russillo with Will Cain. However, Russillo chose not to move spots on radio. Instead, he started a podcast and then departed to The Ringer a few years later. 

Ryen Russillo was a loss, but that's only half of this story. For his part, Will Cain debuted as a solo host from 3 to 6 pm when Russillo declined to move radio time slots in 2018. From 2015 until 2020, Cain was ESPN Radio's sole bright spot. Cain had Cowherd's monologue delivery with Dan Patrick's sense of humor. The Will Cain Show had unprecedented success in the afternoons, even picking up Los Angeles as an affiliate. ESPN bragged about Cain's radio ratings. In his final football season at ESPN, Cain drove ESPN Radio with an 18% year-over-year increase on terrestrial radio and a 20% audience increase across platforms. 

Sources tell OutKick that ESPN discussed moving Cain to an earlier spot in the radio lineup during his 2020 contract negotiations. Still, Cain instead took an offer from Fox News and left ESPN. By the summer of 2020, Cain had left ESPN, Stephen A. Smith had moved off radio to focus on an ESPN+ show, and the company had had enough of Mike Golic and Trey Wingo. Thus, it unveiled a full new radio lineup in August of that year:

That lineup was a disaster. From September 10, 2020, to December 12, 2020, the shows combined for a 53% year-over-year decrease and didn't even last the year. By January, ESPN had moved Greenberg to 10-12 to replace Le Batard, who left the company, and brought Bart Scott and Alan Hahn to midday from New York. Local affiliates also began removing ESPN's national shows. 

ESPN blew up its radio lineup once again this summer and moved Max Kellerman to mornings with Keyshawn Johnson and Jay Williams. Moreover, as we reported, ESPN sent Chiney Ogwumike to NBA programming. ESPN Radio replaced Ogwumike with Chris Canty, who now hosts next to Mike Golic Jr.

In other words, ESPN Radio has launched three different morning shows since Greenberg left Mike & Mike, and 13 shows overall from 6 am to 6 pm since Cowherd left the network six years ago. Neither has been replaceable.

The reason for this is simple: sports-talk radio is personality-driven. A radio network cannot just replace a radio star with a TV host the bosses like. The candidates for sports radio's Mount Rushmore have three traits in common: they are outrageous, entertaining, and admirably obsessed with sports. Such hosts provide listeners with an escape from the real world. The country needed that more than ever back in 2015, but ESPN had other plans. 

Now in 2021, the best audio sports shows are aired by ESPN rivals. Pardon My Take, the Pat McAfee Show, and The Herd are better options. As a result, ESPN has lost its stranglehold on sports talk, yet the network is now making the same mistakes with its daily TV lineup.

Good luck to Brady Quinn, LaVar Arrington, and Jonas Knox. And also, best of luck to the bevy of trios and duos they will face over the next few years on ESPN Radio.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.