Following Jason Whitlock’s removal from The Undefeated in June and his inability to find another compelling role at ESPN, it seems that he’s looking for a way out of Bristol entirely. John Ourand reports in Sports Business Journal that Whitlock is in negotiations to end his ESPN contract completely, and that he could return to Fox Sports and team up with former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz there. That could work out well for both Whitlock and ESPN, but we’ll see if Bristol is willing to accept Whitlock returning to a rival in Fox, or if they want to keep him on in a Bighead-esque role to spite a competitor. From Ourand’s piece:
Jason Whitlock is negotiating to leave ESPN before his contract ends officially, possibly as early as the next few weeks, according to several sources. Whitlock has had informal talks with Fox Sports that could see him return to work with former ESPN exec Jamie Horowitz, who currently is Fox Sports National Networks President. Neither ESPN nor Fox Sports would comment for this story. Whitlock’s possible role at Fox Sports is not known, but if he moves over to Fox Sports, it is expected to include both a television role on FS1 and regular contributions on FoxSports.com. Earlier this month, former ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd signed a four-year deal with Fox Sports that will include roles on both television and radio.
…Whitlock remains under contract for at least another year to ESPN, which continues to place him on its highest profile shows. This summer, Whitlock has made regular appearances as a fill-in host on ESPN’s highest-rated studio show, “PTI.” Shows featuring Whitlock this summer generally pulled in close to the same number of viewers as the ones with regular hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. ESPN, though, has been looking to cut costs recently and has let high profile talent like Cowherd, Bill Simmons and Keith Olbermann leave this summer.
It’s easy to see why a return to Fox might be appealing for Whitlock. For one thing, now that he’s not running The Undefeated, he isn’t a particularly large fish in the giant ocean of Bristol. Yes, ESPN’s willing to let him occasionally guest-host on shows like PTI, but guest-hosting isn’t an especially rewarding gig, especially when you thought you were coming to Bristol to run your own branded website. Similarly, it’s not like Whitlock’s columns are getting huge ESPN promotion at this point; he’s one voice in a deep sea of content. Fox also seems like a better fit for him on a number of fronts; they were willing to let him be edgy and controversial while he was writing for them, and they’ve been doubling down on controversial content lately with an extension for Clay Travis and a new deal for Colin Cowherd, both of whom regularly come under fire for their takes. Fox is a smaller pond as well, one where Whitlock can more easily stand out from the crowd and play a more visible role, both on TV and online. Perhaps most importantly, while he’s at ESPN, the shadow of his failure running The Undefeated is going to hang over him. At Fox, that won’t be the case, at least not as heavily.
Bringing Whitlock back might be logical for Fox, too. Sure, he’s going to create some controversy, but a channel desperately trying to steal ESPN’s thunder probably likes that idea. (The hires of Horowitz and Cowherd and the extension and larger role for Travis certainly suggest that they do.) Moreover, while some of his FoxSports.com columns were controversial, Whitlock did make some valuable points in that arena; he’s a talented writer at times, and one capable of delivering unconventional and valuable perspective under the right circumstances. Putting him on TV regularly may be more problematic, as some of his off-the-cuff takes have drawn tons of fire, but again, Fox doesn’t appear particularly concerned about controversial talent. Whether Whitlock will actually bring Fox substantial pageviews or ratings is up for discussion, but it’s easy to understand how they (and Horowitz in particular, well-known for his role in the creation of “Embrace Debate”) could see him as a potential asset.
It might also make some sense for ESPN to let Whitlock go, even if he is seemingly destined for a competitor. Keeping disenchanted people around can create plenty of problems of its own, especially if they’re controversial in the first place. ESPN smartly let Cowherd go early after the flack he created by seemingly criticizing Dominican baseball players’ intelligence, and they might be well-advised to do the same with Whitlock. Whitlock also has quite the record of blasting employers on his way out the door; doing him a favour and letting him out of his contract early might help diminish that a bit. Granted, Bristol may not be keen to let Whitlock leave for their most-hated rival, but perhaps they can work out a trade. Does Fox have the rights to any cartoon rabbits Disney might want?