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Pat McAfee’s Ascension to ESPN Superstardom Is a Sign of the Times

Talent at the old ESPN, as Keith Olbermann once said, were treated as “factory workers in a factory town.” The new ESPN is moving in a different direction.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few minutes into an upfront that featured a video of Baby Yoda and an appearance from the Kardashians, Disney unveiled its newest star. Pat McAfee strode onto the stage in a black suit like he was on his way to a wrestling ring to cut a promo. “My show, my guys and I, will be joining the ESPN universe,” he declared. The New York Post reported that McAfee got an eight-figure deal. That was enough to lure him away from a deal worth $30 million a year that he had with FanDuel.

McAfee is already on ESPN as an analyst with College GameDay. ESPN is forking over additional millions to put his three-hour daily podcast on TV, its app, and its YouTube channel simultaneously—a first, McAfee noted. ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro, he said, “was one of the only people that I talked to that truly understood what the future of sports media is gonna look like.”

A decade ago, critics had a vision of ESPN’s future. The network would be defined by debate. Takes would replace journalism. Stephen A. Smith would crowd out the wisecracking SportsCenter host.

At Tuesday’s upfront, as McAfee was followed onstage by Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Peyton Manning, it became clear that’s not what happened at ESPN—not exactly. ESPN has come to be defined by stardom. Even as the network lays off employees, it’s handing out the richest talent contracts in its history, trusting that a handful of highly paid big names will help it win the streaming wars. ESPN today is like a cable network run by the front office of the ’90s Yankees or the 2016 Warriors.

Since becoming ESPN president in 2018, Pitaro—whom McAfee affectionately called “the Paisano”—has had an eye for a certain kind of free agent. McAfee, like Buck and Aikman, is a big name. Because of that, McAfee is very expensive.

McAfee is also the kind of content workhorse ESPN likes. McAfee hosts three hours of daily podcasting, which has included Tuesday interviews with Aaron Rodgers. On Saturday mornings, he’s on location with GameDay. He hosted an alternate telecast of the national championship game; he has called wrestling matches for WWE; he stumped for a spot on Monday Night Football. “We’ve been able to generate a group of humans,” he told the advertisers gathered on Tuesday, “that will ride with us wherever I go.”

ESPN handing over huge chunks of its schedule to hosts like McAfee is a complete philosophical about-face. For decades, ESPN reined in anybody who dared to get bigger than the brand. “We were not celebrities,” Keith Olbermann once told me of his first tour on SportsCenter. “We were factory workers in a factory town.”

ESPN’s new stars are factory workers who never punch out. Every weekday morning, Mike Greenberg (the host of Get Up, NBA Countdown, the NFL draft, and two hours of daily radio) hands it off to Stephen A. Smith (First Take, NBA Countdown, the NBA draft, the Know Mercy podcast, and an alternate broadcast of playoff games).

During the NBA playoffs, Greeny and Stephen A. have been squeezed for so much content that you can see them straining when they’re called to churn out even more. After Game 4 of the Lakers-Warriors series, Greeny suggested the Lakers should sit their starters because they led 3-1. After Game 5, Stephen A. laughed at the idea that Anthony Davis could have gotten a concussion. Both statements were mostly really strange. They’re also outgrowths of a system where a few anchors are talking all the time.

Another outgrowth is that shows like NBA Countdown have become weirdly personal affairs, more podcast than pregame. Before Game 6 of the Heat-Knicks series, Countdown ended with Smith embracing the logo of his beloved Knicks on a video screen as his colleagues applauded.

“I’m not happy at all, Greeny,” Smith said at halftime, after the Knicks blew a big lead. Following the Knicks’ loss of the game and series, Smith demanded they trade Julius Randle. As Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina noted, the victorious Heat did not exist in this universe because they didn’t happen to be Smith’s favorite team.

The old ESPN didn’t offer that kind of creative license to anybody. But it offered pathways for lots of employees. You could carve out a career as a SportsCenter anchor, a hyperactive basketball analyst, a hot-take radio host, an intrepid scoop gatherer, or a long-form magazine writer. Six years—and approximately a million media lifetimes—ago, ESPN’s upfront featured Wright Thompson sitting at a faux whiskey bar, regaling advertisers with war stories from his reporting.

Pitaro would tell you he’s playing a far different hand than his predecessors did. As ESPN moves from a world defined by the cable bundle to one defined by streaming, Pitaro is building the network around a tiny group of anchors who can help it hang on to cable customers, make streaming shows, and eat innings so it can have a smaller workforce.

There are a couple of costs involved. One is that a decade of layoffs means ESPN—like the old Yankees—has stopped creating many of its own stars.

Another is that ESPN can’t pay anchors eight figures and hope to control them. On the Know Mercy podcast that Smith hosts outside the network—itself one of the spoils of the new ESPN—he has weighed in on Robert De Niro’s sex drive and “torched” Representative George Santos. Last month, McAfee told his audience that under any deal he signed, creative control was “nonnegotiable.”

The way ESPN is rebuilding its workforce has been tried before, and not just by Joe Lacob and George Steinbrenner. Network news in the ’80s created a star system even as it cut back on news-gathering. A good preview of the new ESPN came last September, when McAfee joked on his show that Greenberg had missed Get Up too many times during his vacation. In the age of the ESPN super-superstar, there’s no such thing as load management.