The Pat McAfee Show Feb 9, 2023; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pat McAfee on the FanDuel set on radio row at the Super Bowl LVII media center at the Phoenix Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN is simultaneously tightening its belt and loosening its purse strings. The WorldWide Leader is undergoing another painful round of layoffs, as part of Disney’s efforts to cut thousands of jobs across its properties. But at the same time, ESPN is also splurging on high-end talent. The network signed Joe Buck and Troy Aikman last year to deals worth a combined $165 million, and is reportedly paying Stephen A. Smith around $12 million annually. But Pat McAfee’s salary could trump them all.

ESPN announced Tuesday it’s acquiring The Pat McAfee Show, bringing aboard the former punter and streaming mega-star on a full-time basis. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reports McAfee will earn more than eight figures per year, which sounds exactly right. McAfee was in the midst of a four-year, $120 million agreement with FanDuel. ESPN must be doling out similar money.

At the old ESPN, nobody was bigger than the brand itself. But in the era of streaming and à la carte media, that’s no longer the case. ESPN is betting on big stars to capture eyeballs. McAfee’s show enjoys more than 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube; and now, all three hours will air on ESPN properties. With his “College GameDay” duties, McAfee and his signature black tank-top will be a ubiquitous presence on the network.

Meanwhile, long-time stalwarts are being terminated, and more talent is in jeopardy. From a business standpoint, this contrast isn’t surprising. ESPN stands to make much more money from McAfee than behind-the-scenes people or most “SportsCenter” anchors.

But that doesn’t make the optics any better. For the suits at Bristol, this is a rough look.

Mike Soltys, who was formerly ESPN’s vice president of corporate communications and a 43-year vet, was cut during the first wave of layoffs last month. During a recent interview, he shared an uncomfortable truth about the situation at the WorldWide Leader.

“Showing this amount of people the door, not for performance reasons, is very disappointing,” he said.

ESPN is worried about servicing its biggest stars at the expense of everyone else. Look no further than Chris Fowler replacing Steve Levy as the No. 2 voice on “Monday Night Football.” ESPN couldn’t offer Fowler what he wanted financially, so they offered him plum assignments, including MNF.

Levy, a stalwart personality of 30 years, deserves better.

But the days of a middle class existing at ESPN are over. For months, it’s been reported there are no “sacred cows,” outside of stars like Buck and Smith, of course.

ESPN has lost a lot of people in recent years. In addition to 1,300 layoffs, there’s been a max exodus of talent: Bill Simmons, Dan Le Batard, Jemele Hill, Colin Cowherd, Ryen Russillo, Michael Smith, Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Trey Wingo and Mike Golic have all left.

That’s not even mentioning the numerous journalists (Jane McManus, Ethan Strauss, Marc Stein, Wesley Morris, Jayson Stark, Tom Rinaldi) and talents such as Mike Golic and Maria Taylor.

In their place, ESPN has largely relied on a cadre of highly paid personalities and opinionated commentators: Smith, Greenberg, Scott Van Pelt, Max Kellerman, Kendrick Perkins, Rex Ryan, Jay Williams, JJ Redick.

Come the fall, Pat McAfee will be added to that list. He made an appearance at ESPN’s upfront Tuesday, along with Buck, Aikman and Peyton Manning.

That’s some serious star power.

ESPN is no longer a destination. Faced with 25 million lost subscribers, the network is now events-focused.  In recent years, ESPN has secured rights to the NFL, SEC, college football playoffs, NBA and the first two rounds of the Masters. The Worldwide Leader pays the NFL $2.7 billion annually; and in return, receives rights to a Super Bowl and improved MNF slate.

Those big events need big personalities, explaining the omnipresence of Greenberg ($6.5 million annually), Smith and in the coming months, McAfee.

ESPN pays its stars big money, and runs them into the ground. On a daily basis, Greenberg hosts “Get Up!,” “NBA Countdown” and two hours of radio. He seems ready to combust at times, such as when he suggested the Lakers should sit their starters against the Warriors because they led the series 3-1.

Smith, meanwhile, handles “First Take,” “NBA Countdown,” “SportsCenter” hits and an alternate broadcast of NBA playoff games–never mind his own podcast, “No Mercy,” which is carried elsewhere.

If Smith appears to be sucking up the oxygen in the room, it’s because ESPN is letting him.

McAfee loves to talk as well, as his nearly six-minute announcement about moving to ESPN indicates.

There are still a lot of uncertainties about this arrangement, beginning with the part about McAfee retaining full creative control. As Le Batard recently indicated, that’s hard to believe. (McAfee’s fans, for what it’s worth, don’t seem to buy it, either.)

But there’s no ambiguity about what Pat McAfee symbolizes about ESPN’s direction: the stars are the show, and everybody else can be damned.