Sports Media and Pop Culture Mailbag: ESPN’s Most Important Personalities, Talents on Rise, Netflix

Last week, I asked Outkick readers to send in sports media and pop culture questions to my Twitter DMs for a mailbag. I couldn’t get to all the questions, but I want to thank everyone who participated. Some of you are rather interesting. 

Not shockingly, the topics disproportionately favored sports media. Let’s go:

“Who are ESPN’s top 5 most important personalities?”

A fun one to start with.

Stephen A. Smith is one of the few personalities in sports media who directly causes a spike in ratings. If he’s off for a day, ESPN’s viewership dips noticeably. Smith is the network’s highest-paid on-air talent and a favorite among executives. Additionally, he’s more famous than 40% of the athletes he covers.

Scott Van Pelt is synonymous with today’s ESPN. He’s the face of the brand. The midnight SportsCenter is the industry’s default post-game show. It follows ESPN’s most important programming (Monday Night Football, NBA, college football). This is a role ESPN wouldn’t want to have to fill.

Numbers three and four are together. Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser don’t garner much social media attention — and it couldn’t matter less. As hard as it is for many to admit, ratings outweigh retweets. PTI is ESPN’s most-watched show, and it’s not close. It’s the key to the network’s afternoon lineup. Wilbon and Kornheiser’s unmatched chemistry is one of ESPN’s most valuable assets. 

If there is anyone in the industry who is unavoidable, it’s Adam Schefter. His news on an entity projected to bring in $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027 is significantly more impactful than some take on LeBron James. A show cannot discuss NFL news without mentioning Schefter’s reports. And he’s coming off the best season of his professional career. It started with the shocking Andrew Luck retirement news. Schefter created the year-long storyline it could be Tom Brady’s final season in New England (it was). He was also added to the network’s bumper programming on Monday Night Football. Schefter has been ESPN’s most recognizable NFL personality since Chris Berman left Countdown. 

“Do you or Clay know what is going on with the SEC/ESPN contract? Also, is it still possible that ESPN can buy any of the remaining CBS years? And do you foresee ESPN being able to get a bigger NFL package? Thanks and stay safe.” 

The last question here is the simplest, so I’ll answer that first. Yes, I expect ESPN/ABC to get a better NFL package. ESPN’s deal expires after the 2021 season. I predict Monday Night Football will be simulcasted on ABC when the new deal kicks in. The NFL’s deals with FOX, NBC, and CBS expire a year later. If I were to bet, ABC ends up in the Super Bowl rotation. I’d also look for it to pick up extra games. Some possibilities include international matchups, the Saturday broadcasts, and a new thought — Christmas Day. ESPN/ABC could own Christmas Day even more if its NBA games lead into and follow a marquee NFL matchup. The NBA likely wouldn’t want to the share the day but, man, would it enjoy the viewership increase that’d come with it.

As for the SEC/Disney deal: Clay wrote about this in December

“Just in time for the end of the year, a major shift arrives in sports media: Disney/ABC/ESPN has stolen away the SEC game of the week from CBS. I’m told the rights fee will be north of $350 million per year and could approach $400 million per year, a huge increase from the $55 million a year the league receives now for this TV package. 

Putting this into financial context, the SEC game of the week — and the title game — standing alone will bring each of the 14 SEC schools somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million+ each, which is up from roughly $4 million each under the current deal.”

The SEC’s deal with CBS runs through the 2023 SEC title game. But, yes, it’s still possible Disney could buy the remaining years from CBS. We’ll see. 

“What will be the next TV big show?

Big doesn’t mean what it once did. The television industry is now far too fragmented. Even more problematic, fans aren’t watching a show at a certain time anymore. This has essentially killed next-day discussion.

Stranger Things is the biggest show right now. The question, though, asks what will be “next.” The Witcher is the front-runner. Netflix’s attempt to fill the Game of Thrones void was met with mixed reviews. Yet, the viewers loved it. It was watched by 76 million households. That’s Netflix’s best first season ever. Not bad.

“Where do you see Barstool going from here media wise? I feel like some of their content guys are stretched thin (Big Cat) and would be better off doing less and focusing on trying to get more mainstream tv (Big Cat on Gameday would be great)? Thanks “

Mainstream television will always have a level of appeal. It’s just no longer needed. Especially at Barstool where its top stars are among the biggest difference-makers online. Television viewers and online users aren’t the same, either. We’ve seen countless, not all, struggle to transition. Though, Big Cat, PFT, and Dave Portnoy have become big enough where I think it’d work.

Content-wise, I’d look for more gambling. Sports gambling will continue to grow. Barstool’s sale to Penn National Gaming opens the door for a unique expansion. College football is another area. The national media minimally covers the sport. Barstool’s pregame show and college football-focused podcasts are some of the best shows the company produces. 

“How will the sports media “silly season” (i.e. personalities moving to new roles, employers, etc.) be affected by the unorthodox circumstances we’re going through right now?”

Impossible to say right now. As is this case with every industry, adjustments are taking place. This has undoubtedly complicated changing jobs. The pandemic has impacted contract negotiations for personalities at various networks, sources tell Outkick. A few have been able to get it done, however. Both Emmanuel Acho and Adam Amin are moving to FOX.

ESPN likely would’ve made a decision on both Monday Night Football and its radio network by now, if COVID-19 hadn’t occurred.

Timing is everything…

“How do you think Disney/ESPN will respond to finding out that their boxing operation run by Bob Arum in addition to their partnership with MTK Global is being run by the head of the Irish drug cartel, Daniel Kinahan? “

For those seeing this and blinking, you can read about it here.

It is a wild story. Kinahan, the founder of MTK Global, is reportedly working on staging a future bout in Saudi Arabia between Tyson Fury — of Arum’s Top Rank — and Anthony Joshua. As the Ring pointed out, Kinahan is the alleged head of “the so-called Kinahan Cartel, Ireland’s largest narcotics traffickers.”

Arum said he has “great confidence” in Kinahan and that he doesn’t let stories influence him. So, I’d assume there won’t be any issues? 

“If you could build the perfect sports media person who would it be? Interview skills of ________? Voice of _______? The mind of ______? Etc.”

I’ve never put much stock into the voice of a broadcaster. Some do, not me. I value the skills developed over what one was born with. Sounding like Morgan Freeman doesn’t make you a good broadcaster. Joe Buck’s constantly changing level of intensity throughout a game is second to none. You can turn on a game, not know the score, or the quarter, or the inning and know what’s at stake if he’s calling it. 

I love the interview question because there isn’t a best right now. Instead, there’s an opening. Joe Rogan’s long-form industry-leading podcast has changed the standard of interviewing. PR-prepared answers don’t work on Rogan’s show, which resembles late-night talk at a bar. While there isn’t another Joe Rogan waiting to turn on the mic, this blueprint would work in sports. 

Dan Patrick comes to mind as a talent who could excel with it. Will Cain has recently added a similar style of interviews to his radio show’s podcast feed. Cain’s format, like Rogan’s, is loose, comfortable, and deep. Topics have ranged from Louis Riddick on Monday Night Football to robbing banks with Clay Tumey.

When you say mind, you are probably referring to who is the smartest. The one with the highest SAT score. The best at replacing common words with synonyms no one has heard of. The audience doesn’t care about this. And, quite frankly, I don’t know how we determine who is the smartestWhen I think of mind, I think of who knows their audience the best. Who adapts the quickest. That’s Colin Cowherd. The Herd’s segments are set up to easily be promoted as clips. The simple format includes long rants, rankings, pairings, and engaging graphics. All crucial elements of media in 2020. Cowherd has managed to pivot to this format while not sacrificing how the show plays on terrestrial radio. 

“Why are you so high on Netflix? It’s vulnerable to the new better options.”


Netflix’s competitors are worth subscribing to. Disney+ has a fantastic library. It’s great for family movie night (better than the theaters, even). Amazon Prime has a solid offering of comedies. NBC’s Peacock’s free tier sounds awesome (I mean, it’s free). But those are complements, not substitutes for Netflix. The best shows and movies are still found on Netflix. Particularly, in original content, a category it now dominates both network and premium television in.

More importantly, Netflix is the default. A reflex for streamers. It’s what Google is for internet surfers, what Amazon is for online shoppers, what Starbucks is for coffee drinkers (okay, maybe that is going too far).

Competition isn’t a bad thing.

“Who is on the rise in sports media?”

I plan on addressing this in its own piece soon. But here are some:

  • Emmanuel Acho
  • Bobby Carpenter
  • Cole Cubelic
  • Julianne Viani-Braen
  • Rachel Lindsay
  • Noah Eagle
  • Vincent Goodwill

Written by Bobby Burack

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