Norby Williamson. Norby Williamson.

One of ESPN’s most prominent and most controversial executives is leaving the company. Norby Williamson, who spent almost four decades with the company in a variety of roles, most recently as executive editor and head of event and studio production, is out. Ryan Glasspiegel of The New York Post broke that news Friday:

In his story on this, Glasspiegel indicated that the move came from ESPN president (content) Burke Magnus:

About a year ago, Burke Magnus was promoted above Williamson to become president of ESPN content.

Sources said that Magnus and Williamson did not share a vision that aligned with ESPN’s long-term strategy and that Magnus made the decision to part ways with the seasoned executive.

…Williamson’s contract had been slated to run until ESPN and ABC air the Super Bowl in early 2027.

Richard Deitsch of The Athletic has the memo Magnus circulated internally on this:

Williamson has been involved in many significant controversies in his since-1985 tenure at ESPN. But one that comes immediately to mind is with Pat McAfee taking the rare step of calling him out publicly this January. In a complaint about ratings leaks, McAfee said “There are folks actively trying to sabotage us from within ESPN. More specifically, I believe Norby Williamson is the guy attempting to sabotage our program. …That is seemingly the only human that has information, and then somehow that information gets leaked and it’s wrong and then it sets a narrative of what our show is. And then are we just going to combat that from a rat every single time?” (He also brought up how Williamson ghosted him on a meeting five years earlier.)

Those comments touched off a firestorm given Williamson’s seniority. But they were far from the first accusation of Williamson manipulating things to minimize or remove content and people he didn’t personally like. That’s come up a lot over the years.

One particularly notable example there was with what happened with the Jemele Hill and Michael Smith-led SC6 version of SportsCenter. That show started when Rob King had oversight of SportsCenter, and didn’t last long after Williamson regained control of that property in an executive shuffle. Since then, both Smith and Hill have spoken about the lack of support they received from executives and the pushes they received to change, which led to Hill leaving SportsCenter, then leaving the company, and Smith later doing the same.

The company then went on a very bizarre PR effort to try and justify axing SC6 and replacing it with a conventional SportsCenter, including a lot of ratings spin. And Williamson himself took some on-the-record shots (unusual for him!) at Smith and Hill (including “I think it got away from us a bit with Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele”) in a 2018 interview with AA’s Alex Putterman. Meanwhile, in the wake of McAfee’s Williamson comments, Hill discussed the flashbacks they gave her both on Twitter/X and on The Awful Announcing Podcast.

That’s far from the only case where Williamson’s moves have come under fire, though. He was the key player behind the end of Outside The Lines as a daily standalone show in 2018, and bizarrely claimed that reducing it to SportsCenter segments was an expansion. He was cited as the key figure in getting rid of Adnan Virk in 2019. He was also heavily discussed around Dan Le Batard’s January 2021 exit from ESPN, and quoted in that release. In fact, he was quoted in many releases announcing the end of prominent shows:

The Virk saga was also interesting considering that the cited reason was leaks to media (specifically, this site). Many reporters and observers noted at that time that was ironic to hear from Williamson given his propensity for leaking stories favorable to his agendas:

(The text there from Miller is “I’ve talked to him a couple of times, but there are certain journalists out there that he is more friendly with and we certainly can see that. Helen Keller can figure that one out!”)

But back to McAfee, the lack of ESPN response to his criticisms of Williamson seemed to be a clear indication who held the power there. The ESPN statement after that included praise for both, and a “we will handle this internally”:

Then, in addressing that on his own show a few days later, McAfee said “I don’t take back anything that I said about said person” and “We all understand what the future looks like, there’s just some old hags that potentially don’t.” (He also offered praise for Magnus there and said he regretted causing drama for Magnus.) And on All The Smoke in February, McAfee discussed this more, saying “I heard from like 40 people who have worked at ESPN or used to work at ESPN and they’re like ‘Thank you for saying what you said.'” (He also called Williamson “middle management,” said he was behind the infamous ban of ESPN talent on McAfee’s show for part of its independent run, and said his comments here were only a “warning shot.”)

The takeaway here is not that Pat McAfee is now running ESPN content. It’s that Burke Magnus is. (And, indeed, as per Glasspiegel’s piece, “One source insisted that Williamson’s exit was not at McAfee’s behest and would have inevitably happened as a result of his having different content visions than Magnus.”)

Magnus took over the content side last March after a long run overseeing rights, but he’d long had some influence there, and had previously advocated for some younger-focused and envelope-pushing shows (including Barstool Van Talk). He’s made some big moves there, including negotiating a settlement and exit with Sage Steele and revamping their lead NBA booth. And now, with Williamson (whose most recent specific responsibilities included oversight of NFL, MLB, NHL, golf, tennis, combat sports, and investigative journalism programming) out, Magnus can put even more of his stamp on ESPN’s content. We’ll see what that leads to.

[The New York Post]

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.