NBA Countdown in June 2019.

The discussions of Michelle Beadle leaving ESPN amidst changes to NBA Countdown (first brought up by Sports By Brooks’ Brooks Melchior back in June) continue to intensify, with Andrew Marchand of The New York Post reporting Tuesday that Beadle and ESPN “are in talks that are expected to result in her leaving the company.” As per Marchand’s piece, the amount of that buyout’s still to be determined, with possibilities for a higher payout that comes with more restrictions on where Beadle can go next or a lower payout with less restrictions. But what’s perhaps particularly interesting is what Marchand mentions about what could be ahead for Countdown post-Beadle, which might involve an overall reduced role for that franchise:

While it was first thought that [Rachel] Nichols and Maria Taylor would split “Countdown” in place of Beadle, that is not fully correct.

What really is on the verge of happening, according to sources, is that Taylor will host “Countdown” on Fridays and Sundays in studio, while Nichols’ daily show “The Jump” is receiving a bump up.

The most prestigious night of the week is Saturdays on ABC for the network’s biggest games. This had been led by Beadle on “Countdown.”

Right now, “The Jump” is expected to be on site for those Saturday matchups. This would seemingly give Nichols and “The Jump” the inside track on being the lead-in to the Finals, which is the Holy Grail for NBA hosts. Sources said the format for the Finals presentation has not been completed yet.

That would mark quite a significant change for ESPN, but it’s one that fits with some of the other talk around their NBA plans. In particular, Ryan Glasspiegel and Bobby Burack of The Big Lead reported last month that Stephen A. Smith is “in ESPN’s plans for NBA studio coverage this season,” with the most likely landing spot being Wednesday nights (where 22 of ESPN’s 36 doubleheaders this season will be bumped up to 7 or 7:30 p.m. Eastern slots, making for extremely limited pre-game windows for the 7 Eastern slots). While none of that appears firmly set yet, the talk there sounds more like removing Countdown that night and featuring a Smith-focused pre-game show instead. And Marchand’s report here makes it sound like something similar could happen Saturday with Nichols and The Jump tabbed as the pre-game show, reducing Countdown to a pre-game show for the Friday and Sunday games.

Cutting Countdown down that far would be a major shift in ESPN’s NBA programming strategy, but there’s perhaps some logic to it. While Countdown has existed in name since 2002 on ABC and ESPN, there isn’t necessarily a strong brand identity there given the large amounts of turnover it’s had over the years and given the many unfavorable comparisons it’s received to TNT’s Inside The NBA (which has had much more cast continuity). And that turnover is going to continue this year, with Beadle leaving ESPN and Chauncey Billups switching to game analyst work with ESPN and the Clippers; Marchand notes that Jalen Rose (who’s been on Countdown since 2012) is expected to remain with the show, but that Paul Pierce’s future there is unclear, so this could be a very different-looking Countdown indeed. And the Countdown name alone doesn’t necessarily inspire a lot of love.

Meanwhile, Nichols and The Jump have seemed to be on the rise for a while. Nichols’ return to ESPN from Turner in November 2015 came with a fair bit of attention, and The Jump built some buzz even ahead of its February 2016 launch. Since then, it’s received some praise for thoughtful interviews and criticisms, and it’s received a lot of extra programming slots from ESPN, from an early 2018 expansion to a full hour to draft and free agency specials. And Nichols herself was featured on an ESPN2 alternate feed playoff broadcast this year. So a higher-profile role for Nichols and The Jump seems to fit with ESPN’s overall recent approach, and perhaps sliding it in as a Saturday pre-game show instead of “NBA Countdown With Rachel Nichols” will allow both franchises to feel more consistent.

It is debatable overall how important the lineup and content of pre-game shows are, as a lot of the audience turning on the TV before a game may be doing so or not regardless of who’s on the pre-game show. But liked or not-liked shows can make at least a bit of a difference, especially when it comes to social media discussion around the NBA; consider how much talk there is about what happens on Inside The NBA, and how comparatively little there is about Countdown. And there’s an argument that a pre-game show’s content and lineup could have a particular impact for high-profile events like the NBA Finals. This might be a way to get ESPN and ABC a more-praised pre-game show there.

In any case, this would mark yet another change for Countdown, which has had a wild ride from name changes to location changes to personnel changes. And it would mark another twist in the story of ESPN and Beadle; she worked at the network from 2009-2012, particularly on SportsNation, then left for NBC. She came back in 2014 as a SportsNation c0-host, took over Countdown hosting duties in 2016, was discussed as part of the Get Up team in September 2017 and moved to New York for that show (which also prompted Countdown to move), but left Get Up in August 2018 shortly after criticisms of football. And now it looks like she’ll be leaving ESPN altogether. We’ll see what’s next for her.

[The New York Post; screencap from an ESPN YouTube clip of Countdown discussing the Raptors’ NBA title win in June 2019]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.