The past few months have been a revolving door at ESPN in terms of on-air personalities coming and going from the Worldwide Leader. The most recent on-air personality to depart is Sage Steele, who announced on Tuesday that she settled her lawsuit with ESPN and Disney and is leaving the network. Steele’s lawsuit settlement with the company ends a lengthy legal battle that dates all the way back to March 2022, when she alleged that her contract was breached and free speech rights were violated.
There were some other big changes afoot in the executive ranks at ESPN. Long-time key rights executive Burke Magnus, who has held the title of president (programming and original content) since 2021, was promoted to president of content in March 2023. Magnus has oversight of studio shows, live events, newsgathering, investigative journalism, original content/ESPN Films, the Talent Office, audio, digital and social media.
Magnus recently appeared on the Sports Media with Richard Deitsch podcast and said that the settlement was related to a legal action, before pointing Deitsch back in the direction of the statement, which he originally tweeted out himself.
“It was obviously a settlement, so we felt good about it,” he said. “It was mutually agreed to by the company and by Sage. She did great work here for a long time and I think it’s best that we go in our separate directions. We definitely wish her the best.”
Steele wasn’t the biggest name to depart from ESPN in the past few months, that perhaps belongs to Jeff Van Gundy, who was arguably the biggest name involved in ESPN’s latest round of layoffs. In an industry where broadcasting booths tend to get turned over every few years, one of the few constants was ABC/ESPN’s top NBA team, consisting of announcer Mike Breen and analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson.
They called 15 NBA Finals as a trio (Breen and Van Gundy did 17 together), including the most recent one. That streak ended in June when Van Gundy was let go. While rumors swirled around who would replace him, that conversation shifted in recent days as speculation about Jackson’s future in the booth got louder. That culminated in Jackson being let go las month in a decision that “shocked and dismayed” the analyst.
Magnus discussed the departures of Van Gundy and Jackson and how that related to the network’s decision to revamp its NBA coverage for the upcoming season and beyond.
“It certainly wasn’t one thing,” Magnus said. “First, let me say, I think it was 17 or 18 years, we had what was in my opinion, what was the best booths in all of sports. We just felt like for a combination of reasons, some of which is related to just planning for the future, but certainly, some of it was also to try to realize some savings in our talent-related exercise…But we thought we could assemble and we believe we have assembled for now top to bottom, a different NBA team that clarifies a bunch of things, that adds great talent in Bob Myers, who I think is gonna be remarkable on television and a very unique perspective having built a dynasty in Golden State.
“But also hand the reins to people we really believe in both on the A-team and the B-team, both for now and the future. So, these things are never easy. It felt like we could accomplish both of the two goals I referenced by making these changes. Mike Breen is the constant on the A-team. Hands down, in my opinion, the best play-by-play guy in any sport…We feel good about it, but it was really not focused just on just those two guys. It was trying to reinvent in many ways the totality of our NBA coverage plan.”
The network was also aiming to reinvent its coverage by adding Pat McAfee and the widely popular The Pat McAfee Show, which officially landed at ESPN in May, signing what was reported as a five-year $85 million contract to bring his talents to the Worldwide Leader.
“First of all, I think he’s supremely talented. I think he has tapped into the pulse of younger fans. I don’t want to even limit it at that, but just the contemporary sports fan,” Magnus said of McAfee, who he recently visited. “He sets the conversation. He has built a show from a blank piece of paper on his own…By the way, I think he also took a lot of slings and arrows undeservedly in a lot of articles, where people tried to draw a direct correlation between our workforce reductions and the acquisition of his show, which is insane.
“I think the big difference in that situation is we acquired the show. We didn’t hire Pat McAfee as a talent and then build the show around him. He already built the show that’s widely successful in the YouTube environment and we’re bringing that show to ESPN. That’s a big difference that was missed in a lot of the reporting on that particular. That show is the reason we wanted Pat McAfee, which is to say, we feel like he has tapped into something that will fit perfectly in our daytime lineup…that’s six hours that’s absolutely powerhouse Monday-Friday every single day, every single week on ESPN…I couldn’t be more excited about that.”
Magnus made it pretty clear that McAfee will not be limited to only having ESPN employees as guests on his shows.
“No issue there at all,” he said.
ESPN is rolling the dice on McAfee and their new NBA coverage team. But it’s clear Magnus is confident in the direction of the company, especially with some of its new on-air talent, even in a strained sports media environment that has seen several folks lose their jobs over the past year or so.