One of ESPN’s most prominent and popular remaining personalities is on his way out. That would be Dan Le Batard. As per an ESPN release, the ESPN finale of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz will be January 4, and Le Batard and his father will also host Highly Questionable for the last time that day. (Weirdly enough, that show is sticking around on ESPN sans Le Batard and his father, Gonzalo “Papi” Le Batard, despite it starting as Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable and despite the two of them being so tied to it.) Here are quotes from the release:
“It was mutually agreed that it was best for both sides to move on to new opportunities and we worked together closely to make that possible,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president and executive editor. “We thank Dan for his many years and contributions to ESPN and wish him all the best going forward.”
Le Batard said, “Gracias to ESPN for unleashing Papi and Stugotz upon an unsuspecting America, and for lending its substantive credibility to our careening clown car. Can’t believe Stugotz finally achieved his dream of becoming a high-priced free agent. I’m forever indebted to Erik Rydholm, Matt Kelliher and their vibrant team for providing a creative oasis across a decade, and for expanding the Le Batard family to include so many brilliant colleagues who have become forever friends, bonded eternally by laughter and love. Want to also extend my gratitude to Chuck Salituro, Jimmy Pitaro, Traug Keller, Marcia Keegan, Connor Schell, Juan Diaz, Mike Foss, Amanda Gifford, Liam Chapman, Megan Judge, Elizabeth Fierman, the Hialeah-soaked crew at Imagina …and when did this become a droning acceptance speech instead of a quick goodbye? In short, thank you, Disney and ESPN, for a quarter century of absurd blessings. To our loyal army of concerned fans, and to everyone who walked along and played an instrument in our Marching Band to Nowhere, know that it is a very exciting time for us, not a sad one. And that you’ll be hearing our laughter again soon enough.”
Le Batard first looked to be possibly leaving ESPN in 2018, but signed a deal that summer to stick around. However, the relationship has been seemingly rockier since then. In 2019, Le Batard seemingly flouted ESPN’s “no pure politics” policy with a radio discussion criticizing the “send her back” chants about U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar during a rally held by U.S. president Donald Trump. While Le Batard wasn’t suspended for that, it led to a lot of stories, and to ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro speaking with Le Batard. Le Batard then took a day off, and after his return, there were reports that he would now have to “check with higher-ups” before talking politics.
This year then brought some new issues for the ESPN-Le Batard relationship. In April, Andrew Marchand of The New York Post reported that a widespread ESPN Radio makeover (including Will Cain exiting for Fox News and Mike Greenberg launching a radio show) might lead to Le Batard leaving ESPN Radio. In July, when Greenberg’s radio show was actually announced, it took an hour from Le Batard. Le Batard got some extra podcast episodes, but that’s quite different. And last month, ESPN layoffs hit Le Batard Show staffer Chris Cote, and did so without any notice for Le Batard; he later rehired Cote himself, but expressed how frustrated he was. So yes, this has been building for a while, and yes, it probably makes some sense for Le Batard to head elsewhere at this point; he’s clearly not high on ESPN’s priority list of people to keep happy, and some of the things he wants to do don’t seem to be a new fit for ESPN’s current corporate brand-over-personal brand approach.
On that front, it’s interesting that the quote from the ESPN side came from Williamson, as he’s been perhaps the loudest voice (for decades) for that approach of emphasizing ESPN as a whole rather than their personalities. And he’s played key roles in ending or burying many good ESPN programs. (The old Deadspin tag on him makes for entertaining reading.) And he’s been a notable figure reported as pushing back against some of ESPN’s more outside-the-box personalities, including Bill Simmons, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, and Adnan Virk. And it’s always interesting that he winds up as the figure quoted in releases about these moves, as AA’s Ben Koo noted on Twitter:
Norby Williamson really seems to embrace enforcer/grim reaper role. Carried out Virk termination. Quoted in releases for:
– Le Batard leaving
– OTL cancellation
– High Noon getting kneecapped
– SC’s ratings lift after Jemele and Michael left
Was told “He likes throwing elbows"
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) December 3, 2020
Le Batard is certainly outside the box, and his various clashes with management certainly fall into categories that have riled up Williamson in the past. And even the “it was mutually assured that it was best for both sides to move on” is the most Williamson quote imaginable. It’s straight from the mouth of CorporateSpeakBot3000, and it fits with what ESPN’s emphasizing these days.
And Williamson has been rising in importance at ESPN recently, especially with the departure of key content executive Connor Schell (who seemed to get on far better with the outside-the-mold ESPN personalities). So Le Batard’s exit definitely seems to fit with Williamson’s long-running approach of emphasizing the brand of ESPN (and sub-brands like SportsCenter) rather than the brands of individual ESPN personalities. And the ESPN Radio changes in the wake of Le Batard’s exit certainly seem to emphasize that; Greenberg’s Greeny show (which had been airing from noon to 2 p.m. Eastern) will now slide into Le Batard’s 10 a.m.-noon Eastern slot (it used to be 10 a.m.-1 p.m. before Greenberg took the last hour in August).
Replacing the always-opinionated and sometimes-controversial Le Batard with the man who’s so safe that his show’s a regular stopping point for league commissioners, so corporate that his old show was once dubbed “Mickey And Mickey In The Morning,” and so eager to tell people that he would never, ever dare to talk politics certainly feels like a Williamson-favored move. And it has led to some funny Twitter criticisms, including from Michael Schur (the veteran TV writer and producer who wrote a glowing piece on Le Batard’s show for Slate in 2018, co-hosts a sports podcast, and co-founded Fire Joe Morgan):
Apologies — got the schedule wrong. @LeBatardShow slot will be filled by "The Monster Energy Drink/NASCAR Truck Series SportsWeek Hot Take Round-Up and Soft-Core Porn Review, with Aubrey Huff and James Dolan."
— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) December 3, 2020
We’ll see what this new opportunity is for Le Batard. It will certainly be funny if he winds up hosting a show somewhere in his old slot and going head-to-head with Greenberg. But even if he doesn’t do exactly that, he has a large following, and it seems likely he’ll find success elsewhere, and won’t have to deal with the things that riled him about about working for ESPN. Meanwhile, we’ll see how ESPN Radio does with Greenberg in Le Batard’s old slot (they’re also taking Alan Hahn and Bart Scott’s ESPN New York show national from noon to 2 p.m. Eastern, Greenberg’s old slot), and how ESPN TV does with a Highly Questionable without the man it was named after.