What Ariel Helwani's Departure From ESPN Says About the Future of Sports Media

There was a time, if one could dominate an area of sports media, ESPN soon became an inevitable match. ESPN was the end-goal. Today, however, ESPN is a step along the way. Ariel Helwani's departure is just further evidence.

As OutKick first reported, Helwani did not accept the network's final offer and will soon leave ESPN. Helwani was offered a pay cut steep enough that he saw more money elsewhere. Sources told OutKick over the weekend that Helwani has already spoken with The Action Network and several other outlets about non-exclusive contracts:

It used to be that breakups had a clear winner and a clear loser. The guy who way outkicked his coverage with his first post-college girlfriend may tweet that he's winning without her, but he's sitting home alone, playing Xbox. Colin Cowherd elevated after leaving ESPN, while ESPN Radio collapsed. When Michelle Beadle left ESPN the first time, the network didn't lose a single viewer. You win some, you lose some.

The breakup between Helwani and ESPN may not be quite as cut and dry though.

ESPN has calculated that only a few people on its roster actually have significant value above their possible replacements, who would come at a lower price. That doesn't mean there are none. Stephen A. Smith, Mike Greenberg, Scott Van Pelt, Adam Schefter, Kirk Herbstreit, Max Kellerman, Michael Wilbon, and Tony Kornheiser are talents that ESPN could not successfully replace tomorrow. But by and large, ESPN had mistakenly paid personalities sometimes at least a million dollars annually above their market value. With each talent pay cut, the network further admits how badly it has overpaid. Good for ESPN.

ESPN is no longer looking to pay Katie Nolan-money for a personality to host a show once a week.

Fair or not, ESPN can pay someone half of what it offered Helwani and avoid the headache that came from his feud with Dana White. The UFC is crucial to both ESPN and Disney's industry-leading OTT bundle. The dollars show that ESPN and every other sports network must keep the likes of Dana White, Roger Goodell, and Adam Silver happy, regardless of how that makes random Twitter accounts feel.

At ESPN, live games make the real money, and the rights to such games keep viewers subscribing to cable and adding subscriptions to ESPN+. Personalities don't move ESPN+ subs at a high rate. Thus, the more ESPN pivots to that platform, the less value individual talents have.

Meanwhile, Helwani will be fine. In fact, he may be better off. Helwani has a market that could be lucrative. He could sign a deal with The Action Network, do a podcast for Meadowlark, and perhaps even start a SubStack and eclipse the $500,000 a year range in which he was previously.

All on-air talents should ask themselves and their agents one question: Am I better off with one check from ESPN, or several checks from non-exclusive outlets with the opportunity to build and sell a company? 

For many, the latter is the box to check. If one can capitalize on the sports gambling market, the answer is almost undoubtedly the entrepreneurial route. 

Simply put, Dan Le Batard hurt ESPN's radio network by losing affiliates. He was a daily migraine who openly challenged his company on-air. ESPN doesn't miss Le Batard. Dan Le Batard, who just signed a $40-50 million deal with DraftKings, doesn't miss ESPN either. The breakup was mutually beneficial.

Matthew Berry and Paul Finebaum, because of their large niches, headline the list of current ESPN talents who could find similar outside success.

Obviously, this does not apply network-wide. ESPN provides perhaps the only opportunity most anchors, studio analysts, and average radio hosts have to stay in the conversation. And should far-left pundits like Bomani Jones,who fool the Washington Post into misleading, easily mocked puff pieces, ever test the waters, the market won't be that kind.

ESPN should not overpay its talents anymore, and talents should not fear taking a risk elsewhere. I suspect by this time next year, Ariel Helwani will join the growing list of media talents who are better off on their own while ESPN+ grows behind the UFC and NHL.

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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.