Norby Williamson

If you’re an avid sports fan, chances are you’ve never heard of Norby Williamson, but you’ve likely seen his fingerprints in many places. Williamson is actually one of the most powerful and influential figures in sports because of his decades-long tenure as an executive at ESPN. Williamson’s tenure in Bristol has been marked by seismic changes in programming and significant power struggles.

In January 2024, his name rose to prominence after Pat McAfee accused him of “sabotaging” his show from inside ESPN and leaking negative news about the program. While McAfee may have a lot of power with his mega-millions contract as one of the faces of the network, calling out someone with a history of putting his finger on the scales of success or failure in Bristol was certainly a bold move.

So who is Norby Williamson? Where has he had an imprint on the sports world? And why would McAfee feel the need to call him out?

How long has Norby Williamson been at ESPN?

Williamson is an ESPN lifer, having joined the network in 1985 and starting in the mailroom at Bristol according to his ESPN biography. From there, he has held just about every important role imaginable across many departments. Norby slowly rose through the ranks at ESPN starting as a production assistant and filling various roles on the production and highlights side, specifically working with SportsCenter and the news gathering efforts at the network. By 2002, he had risen to Senior Vice President and Managing Editor at ESPN. After three years leading the news department, he then shifted to overseeing all of ESPN’s domestic production. Then came a stint in 2007 in charge of all network production. In 2012 it was onto negotiating rights fees with prospective partners. Williamson has held varying positions since, but he’s basically been in charge of pretty much every facet of ESPN programming at one point or another.

What is Norby Williamson’s current role at ESPN?

Williamson’s current title at the network is Executive Editor and Head of Event and Studio Production, a lofty stature that gives him control over both news and live event programming. In 2023 this was expanded to include all of the network’s football content after a major executive shakeup.

Williamson replaced Stephanie Druley in June 2023 as the head of football production after a massive wave of layoffs at ESPN and a shuffle of the organizational chart. This included a new director and producer at Monday Night Football just a year into Joe Buck and Troy Aikman’s high-profile move to the network. It was seen by many observers as another move up the ladder for Williamson under ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro because he was already overseeing so much content at the network. And the fact that it came as ESPN and ABC are entering back into the Super Bowl cycle wasn’t lost on anyone either. Williamson’s portfolio now includes the NFL, college football, MLB, golf, tennis, boxing, SportsCenter, E:60, ESPN Radio, and more.

Has Norby Williamson encountered controversy at ESPN?


Perhaps the most controversial period of Williamson’s tenure came during the restructuring of SportsCenter in the mid-2010s. At the time, ESPN was experimenting with giving different hours of SportsCenter their own unique flavor. This included a complete remake of the 6 PM ET SportsCenter, anchored by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. SC6 was a radical shift from the highlight-centered program that SportsCenter was for much of its history. Williamson told Awful Announcing in 2018: “When we went with the Six we didn’t really do our due diligence there. I think it got away from us a bit with Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele.”

While that sounds diplomatic, other reports painted Williamson as an integral force in the demise of SC6. The show anchored by Hill and Smith came under fire from conservatives for being too “woke” and too political. Williamson’s goal was to return SportsCenter to the age of highlights and news from his first days working with the program and he got what he wanted. He also may be a bit of a micro-manager. The Washington Post recounted how he told Bob Ley to shave his beard because he thought it looked “stupid” and that he even rewatches old episodes of SportsCenter. And after McAfee’s comments, multiple former ESPN personalities seemed to side with him on social media.

What controversy happened between Norby Williamson and Pat McAfee?

The feud between Williamson and McAfee comes down to a clear clash of culture and style. On one hand, is the longtime ESPN executive who is a creature of habit and cherishes decades of tradition at ESPN. On the other hand is a brash former punter who got a huge contract to syndicate his YouTube show, curses a bunch, and is loathe to wear sleeves.

In January 2024, the New York Post released an article that was critical of McAfee’s television ratings, which were down 12% compared to the episodes of SportsCenter that previously aired in the timeslot. McAfee immediately accused Williamson of leaking the numbers and trying to tear him down.

“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,” McAfee said.”He 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?”

An hour later, ESPN sent out a press release noting McAfee’s strong viewership across all platforms, not just the linear network, but also on YouTube and ESPN+.

What’s next for Norby Williamson and Pat McAfee?

If a true power struggle emerges at ESPN between Bristol HQ and the Thunderdome in Indianapolis, it’s impossible to tell who might come out on top. Williamson has moved up the ladder to one of the most powerful executive positions at ESPN and is now an indispensable force who is responsible for almost every hour of programming on the network. But McAfee was handpicked and given a 5-year, $85 million contract to help reinvent the network and reach a younger audience. McAfee’s support may go above and beyond Williamson as he was seen meeting with Disney CEO Bob Iger before his hiring became official. Given his role not just with his daily show but also as the new star of College GameDay, McAfee is one of the two or three most visible, influential personalities working at ESPN today.

However, McAfee hasn’t lasted at one place too long – whether that’s Barstool, FanDuel, or WWE. Williamson has been working at ESPN since before the former punter was even born. If ESPN becomes not big enough for both of them, it’s hard to bet against the person who has been successfully navigating the power structures at the network for nearly four decades.