ESPN’s cancellation of Barstool Van Talk continues to reveal some of the inner machinations at the network. The decision exposed the conflict between those who enjoyed Pardon My Take and the opportunity to add two talented personalities to the programming roster, and a sizable contingent in Bristol who were loudly opposed to any association with Barstool Sports.
As SportsBusiness Journal’s John Ourand reports, Pardon My Take had two significant advocates in Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, and Connor Schell, executive vice president of content. Both believed that the hosts of the show, Dan “Big Cat” Katz and PFT Commenter, were potential stars who could reach an audience that was eluding ESPN.
In addition, Magnus and Schell felt that partnering with Barstool wouldn’t make many waves because several ESPN personalities were guests on Pardon My Take, while Big Cat and PFT had already appeared on network programming. They did realize that a lot of Barstool’s content would raise objections among on-air talent and executives in Bristol, but ultimately felt that a show based on Pardon My Take and getting in business with Big Cat and PFT would be worth risking upsetting that contingent.
ESPN president John Skipper agreed with his top executives. But once it became clear that too many people at the network were upset by the affiliation with Barstool, ignited by Sam Ponder’s agent contacting Skipper and Schell with concerns about what Barstool had once said about his client, Skipper realized just how much hostility existed among employees and executives. Looking through Barstool’s content, along with Ponder tweeting her feelings on the subject, increased his anxiety.
Despite Magnus and Schell continuing to support the show, with Magnus touting the audience Barstool Van Talk drew among men ages 18-to-34, Skipper couldn’t ignore the outrage developing among ESPN employees, nor the fear that Barstool Sports might produce something that would put the network in a bad situation by association. ESPN wanted no mention of Barstool in the show’s title, but Barstool founder Dave Portnoy insisted that the brand be part of the program. That appeared to confirm Skipper’s concerns that the show couldn’t disassociate itself from Barstool and focus on the “Pardon My Take” brand.
Rather than wait until Barstool did something that gave ESPN no choice but to cancel Barstool Van Talk, Skipper decided to be proactive and shutter the show, even though only one episode had aired. Effectively, he overruled Schell and Magnus, both of whom wanted to keep the show on the air. As of last Monday, the decision was made and everyone involved was informed of the cancellation.
When Schell was promoted to his current position, the belief was that he would handle content, while Skipper focused primarily on the business side. Many felt that ESPN had suffered when Skipper became the network’s president, leaving no one to oversee content. But it’s certainly notable that Skipper went against his executives in charge of content and programming, and appears to have left the Barstool debacle at their feet. In the aftermath, will ESPN be as willing to take risks with its programming in an attempt to reach new audiences?
There is plenty more in SBJ’s piece worth reading, including more on the internal conversations between ESPN and Barstool, and the tensions that were heightened by Ponder’s tweets.