Pat McAfee Credit: USA Today

Weekly newsmaking interviews with sports celebrities like Aaron Rodgers and Nick Saban may be what propels The Pat McAfee Show into the headlines. But the environment it creates for lesser-known guests from the world of football is what gives the show obvious staying power and is helping it rewrite the sports show recipe.

The show lives and breathes football. It’s not just that McAfee comes from the NFL as a retired punter, but he has hand-selected crew members and fellow retired NFLers who bring genuine passion for the sport and the culture around it. When active athletes and coaches join the show, that energy brings out some of the more illustrative and thoughtful interviews anywhere in NFL media.

As a result, McAfee and his relatively anonymous co-hosts and producers have seemingly already won over NFL comms staffs and agents alike. The show is becoming a go-to for anyone in the sport hoping to expose themselves to a wider audience in comfortable territory.

Already this week, PMS has produced moments including Texans rookie CJ Stroud addressing pre-draft criticism of his football IQ, Vikings safety Harrison Smith breaking down Panthers QB Bryce Young, and Peyton Manning dissecting Giants and Commanders film, with more to come.

Head coaches Shane Steichen and Arthur Smith gave McAfee nearly 10-plus minutes apiece last month.

This is not normal, for ESPN or even an athlete-turned-host. In the carefully scheduled weekly rhythm of the NFL, it’s uncommon for anyone to go out of their way to do interviews. ESPN viewers might go weeks watching NFL Live without seeing the number of interviews McAfee does in a day.

PMS has successfully earned what so many shows in sports media dream of: A constant flow of conversations with the people who compete in the games we all watch. So how have they done it?

Answering that question requires first looking outside the interviews. PMS truly celebrates football. That’s the kind of thing that you might see in the description on your channel guide, but with McAfee, it’s legit. When the show discusses the football news of the day, it helps to have relatively “regular” guys filling out the cast, but PMS also isn’t afraid to get in the weeds of the news. The result is an informed discussion that approaches the sport with a level of care that the audience clearly responds to. McAfee knows the names of most of the coordinators and B-level talent in the sport in a way not many people hosting three-hour daily shows can be bothered to. He also feels what it’s like to be in their shoes, and keeps working to understand them even as he gets further from his own retirement in 2016.

When McAfee sets up a segment, he typically addresses the online consensus around a topic and then opens up the conversation from there. Should the topic be serious, as with veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones being arrested this week, McAfee does the journalistic basics by giving the facts before typically disclaiming that he and the show support the best outcome for the athlete. The crew takes it from there with the on-field side. But the conversation is grounded in positivity — toward the athlete and the state of the sport.

The crew, especially on-air personalities Ty Schmit, Boston Connor, and Anthony “Tone Digs” DiGuilio, have so far not left their fan perspectives behind as their profile has risen aboard the PMS and ESPN rocket ship. Those perspectives serve as a balance for McAfee, who inevitably has connections to many of the characters in the football news. The crew is often where more confrontational perspectives or questions might come from. They cut to the chase.

Altogether, it’s impossible to ignore the care and excitement about football whenever you turn on PMS. The football world seems to feel it, too.

Which brings us back to the interviews themselves. It can’t be overstated how far speaking to athletes on their level can go. McAfee has a great feel for the mentality of different people in the league. Some want to goof around, others are super serious. Some are established enough to not need to flex, others understandably see PMS as a place to remind the world of their greatness. He meets them where they are.

Beyond that, while McAfee may be defensive when criticized, he gives interviewees a balanced landing place to address the controversy. Rodgers talking through his Packers’ drama or defending his COVID beliefs are the most high-profile examples, but it’s a constant thread of the show. McAfee once interviewed Carson Wentz at the peak of the rumors about Wentz being a difficult teammate in Indianapolis. Lions coach Dan Campbell was given space to respond to the jokes about his intensity and colorful style.

Don’t ignore Rodgers and Saban, either. Both are unique voices in sports with personalities that veer toward prickly. McAfee earned their respect. Their weekly segments are not softball niceties or chuckle-fests. McAfee gets real football analysis as well as honest personal anecdotes from them on a weekly basis.

It’s sports. It truly is not all that serious. But by laying back and making a real effort to connect, PMS has earned the trust of its audience and its guests.

Given the particulars of the host, the crew, and even the sport, there may not be easy lessons to learn from all this if your name isn’t McAfee. However, the basics apply everywhere.

Well-connected former players and coaches are making inroads across sports media. Hosts like JJ Redick, Shannon Sharpe, and Paul Bissonnette have brought their own spin to the space and produced great interviews with their friends and fellow competitors. At Jomboy, the signature Talkin’ Yanks podcast hosted a weekly hit with Yankees manager Aaron Boone in a departure from the traditional radio spot from coaches and managers. Former NFL Network host Kay Adams interviews Daniel Jones and Deebo Samuel once a week on her FanDuel digital show Up & Adams. The industry is already being pulled by the currents McAfee helped uncover.

The prerequisites for creating engaging conversations with athletes are changing. Audiences along with coaches, players, and executives are evolving in their thinking of where sports stars can speak publicly and how they can do it.

The Pat McAfee Show has forced the industry to rethink much of how it works. Its biggest legacy so far may be how it connects with those sports stars at a scale and wavelength that no other show is. They earned the hype their guest list delivers.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.