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LAYOFFS? MORALE? CORD-CUTTERS? DIGNITY? ESPN PAYS MCAFEE ANYWAY
It’s not a good look when Disney Company, purveyor of fairy tales, hires Potty Mouth Pat to an eight-figure-plus deal as 7,000 jobs are slashed and subscribers are fleeing by the tens of millions
Truth be told, I vomited before hosting a Chicago sports radio show and proceeded while slightly hungover. The station manager knew, and he filed it away for ammunition when a local team owner/crybaby wanted me off the air. Too bad Jimmy Pitaro’s kids weren’t born yet and couldn’t listen.
I might have received $20 million a year at ESPN.
A host who has done many naughtier things than most of his media brethren — Pat McAfee, he of the drunken arrest after diving into an Indianapolis canal, he of the rampant F-bombs on YouTube and Barstool Sports, he of the reckless gambling forays, he of the shots-and-stunts bro life — just became one of the highest-paid sportscasters ever. Mickey Mouse, Snow White and a stable of Disney characters are blushing today, as patriarch Walt grumbles in his grave. This amid the layoffs of 7,000 company employees whose lives will change for the worse, in part so the ESPN chairman can placate two Gen Zers at home who love Potty Mouth Pat.
We knew the four-letter monster was bleeding subscribers, by the tens of millions, to the point “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” should be called “The Carcass of a Cord-Cutting America.” But who thought Disney CEO Bob Iger, amid his good-vs.-evil activism brawl with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, would sign off on a gonzo personality who represents the antithesis of all things Disney? And who thought Pitaro, who has pledged normalcy in Bristol after purging social-justice politics from his sports content, would ignore the bad look of opening a bank vault for McAfee when so many good people are losing jobs?
Dignity already was in short supply. ESPN lost much of it by brazenly and completely selling out to bedfellow sports interests — abandoning traditional news sensibility and investigative journalism to be marketing arms for the NFL, NBA and Southeastern Conference, among others. But the McAfee hire? It’s one step away from doing business with the Kardashians, or producing a live show from a strip club.
What he does isn’t sports talk. It’s the rawest form of dude evangelism, entertainment for the UFC and WWE crowds, sprinkled in with weekly visits from Aaron Rodgers, who now will advance oddball coronavirus theories and political preferences from New York. I understand McAfee has an ample following — 2.2 million subscribers for his YouTube program. But is this the following ESPN wants for its sacred blowtorch? Does it really want the young males sitting around at home at noon ET, when ESPN, ESPN+ and ESPN’s YouTube channel will air his three-hour weekday show? And how many of those streamers might reject flipping to the “dark side” now that their guy is part of the corporate establishment? If you’re stooping this far, why stop at McAfee? Was Dave Portnoy not available? Russell Brand, wherever he is?
The industry of sports media, if it still deserves a serious designation, is careening into ugly territory. Hiring McAfee means ESPN wants gambling, gambling and more gambling in its daily presentation. Any number of recent surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans who regularly watch sports aren’t wagering on games. To disregard such a critical piece of research only disrespects the core audience, if it doesn’t chase away viewers altogether. Nothing is wrong, mind you, with skewing younger.
Plenty is wrong with skewing rogue.
“We ain’t changing a damn thing,” declared McAfee, in his black tank top, gold chain around his neck. “What I discovered in these negotiations — that I represented us in — is that our show is what a lot of these suit folk are viewing as the future of daily sports talk. I think that’s a really cool thing. A few years back, none of these networks would even give me a meeting. Now, we’re the tip of the spear of what sports media needs to be in its next chapter.”
He is allowed to draw this unsettling conclusion after four networks wooed him in recent months. Spending nearly six minutes announcing the news on a Twitter video, McAfee chirped, “I’m honored that what the boys, our fans and I have created has been studied, accepted and ultimately, seemingly appreciated by these multi-billion-dollar networks with hundreds if not thousands of employees.” Mercifully, he didn’t mention that 7,000 heads are being chopped by his new employer. But he did follow with a 2022 clip in which he thanked his viewers: “It only happens because of all you mother f—ers that watch and follow along.”
Crudely, ESPN wants to be Barstool. Why assume that all young people, in their teens and 20s and 30s, are into McAfee and his ilk? Why not realize that a good many of them, at least the ones I know, want something less vulgar and more grounded? For decades, networks resisted any urge to bring a Howard Stern component to the sports air. ESPN valued an element of sophistication, with the smart humor of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. McAfee isn’t dumb, as his new contract proves, but he’s the broadcasting polar-opposite of Patrick, who’s still going strong. I hear capable hosts on ESPN Radio throughout the day and night. Any of them would have cost a fraction of McAfee’s fortune. Do advertisers really know the difference between McAfee and Joe Fortenbaugh? They will only when Potty Mouth Pat strikes and makes the wrong headlines.
Desperation doesn’t flatter Pitaro and his No. 2, Burke Magnus. It makes me wonder if hiring McAfee, the former All-Pro punter, is the company’s version of kicking from its own end zone rather than letting the quarterback get sacked and bloodied? Back in the day, ESPN always had a big lead. Now, it’s handing over the operation — and its ethical standards — to a defiant class clown. In agreeing to the windfall, the host said he won’t be saying “f— nearly as much, but every other word is good to go … everything else will be good.” Great. Can’t wait. Sure the moms can’t wait, either, along with advertisers who stand by ESPN only because Mike Greenberg is such a sweetheart and Scott Van Pelt engages in such nice interviews with athletes and coaches. Comparatively, a suck-up tout like Van Pelt is watchable. The professional compromises of league “insiders” Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski are mere child’s play. And Stephen A. Smith, whose “First Take” show will be an awkward lead-in for McAfee? Once Potty Mouth Pat drops his first F-bomb, will we no longer care when Stephen A. mocks Shohei Ohtani for using a Japanese translator or gets another fact wrong? Professional standards are being worn down to the nubs.
“We will still have full creative control of the program,” McAfee promised. “Why would ESPN want to license our show and then change it entirely? That makes no sense.”
Nothing here makes sense, beyond the cruel recklessness of executives too busy with toys to notice the despair in their buildings. The Front Office Sports site has a gripping story on how ESPN’s layoffs have wrecked lives, but Pitaro is too busy appeasing teenagers to care about the rotten math: The company is trying to slash $5.5 billion in costs yet gives a massive bag to a host it doesn’t need. McAfee is a gamble at best, a disaster at worst, and at this point in the game, risk-taking is a losing play. Don’t tell Pitaro.
“Pat is a proven talent," he said in a statement. "He and his team have built ‘The Pat McAfee Show’ into one of the most engaging programs in sports and all of media. It's a destination for athlete interviews and breaking news, and the centerpiece of a growing community of sports fans. We're honored to bring Pat and the show to ESPN through a multifaceted, multiplatform approach."
This comes after Pitaro confirmed to The Athletic, not long ago, that he wanted McAfee in the fold. “I think that’s largely because he’s real, authentic and unafraid,” he told the site. “His top attributes are exactly what we look for — he’s willing to say what he believes, he is genuine, incredibly knowledgeable and passionate. He resonates strongly among young fans, and he has a significant and engaged social presence. He’s that rare talent that both my teenagers and I find compelling.”
Does he realize most teenagers, maybe not his, have little or no disposable money? That an alarming number are contemplating suicide? That they’re years away from having the financial wherewithal to buy the very products McAfee is hawking? And the money that they do have, if they listen to his show enough, might go to bets that reduce them to problem gamblers?
Nah. Pitaro wants the bro dudes, the same bro dudes who existed when I was in my early 20s but were wisely de-emphasized by Big Media. He wants, in McAfee’s words, a “common man who has had the incredibly fortunate experience of living an extremely uncommon professional life.” I must again implore Iger’s wife — Willow Bay, the dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism — to have a dinner-table talk with Sir Robert about the responsibility of media in a tumultuous, dangerous and disturbing 21st century. Seems Iger, in his difficult quest to lift Disney from unfamiliar dregs, has lost sight of what can make his company great.
It sure the f— isn’t Pat McAfee. Who’s next, Tucker Carlson?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.