Confirming one of the worst-kept secrets in sports, Pat McAfee announced his show will move to ESPN this fall, putting to bed weeks of speculation. It’s a fascinating choice by McAfee, abandoning a hugely lucrative deal with FanDuel to hop aboard what Dan Patrick lovingly refers to as “the mothership.” McAfee has effectively gone corporate, even while insisting his show will remain more or less the same, anticipating little if any pushback from Bristol.
While McAfee doesn’t expect ESPN to stand in the way of his creative vision, others aren’t as convinced, suggesting the punter-turned-media-darling may be underestimating Disney’s overall impact, wielding an iron fist in stifling similarly outspoken talents Dan Le Batard and Jemele Hill, both of whom were neutered by a brand-conscious corporation that made them stick to the script.
McAfee isn’t as politically driven as those two were, though it does make you wonder how much influence the company will have over day-to-day decisions including what guests are permitted on ESPN airwaves. Shams Charania and Ian Rapoport have both been regular contributors to The Pat McAfee Show, lending credibility with their access and well-sourced reporting. Of course, that’s complicated by the move to ESPN, with the network undoubtedly preferring to feature its own insiders, Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski.
In exchange for a larger national audience, McAfee knew his partnership with ESPN would entail creative compromises, and this will likely be one of them. The question is how big a sticking point it will be, and how hard McAfee is willing to fight for the relationships he built at FanDuel. McAfee has already acknowledged having to retire his use of certain words to meet ESPN’s on-air standards, implying a willingness to play ball, even if it means canning two of his more popular guests.
Media critics Bryan Curtis and Ben Strauss of The Ringer and Washington Post, respectively, were asked to weigh in, agreeing that platforming competing analysts might not be in McAfee’s best interest, particularly as he settles into a new role at a famously meddling company that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. “I think it would be a really tough sell to put [Rapoport and Charania] on that show regularly,” said Curtis on Monday’s episode of Sports Media with Richard Deitsch. “Because the insiders are the most powerful people at ESPN.”
The situation is reminiscent of a past feud between rival New York radio hosts Michael Kay and Mike Francesa, with the latter declining to interview or even acknowledge anyone with ESPN ties. Of course, that conflict fell by the wayside years later when ESPN produced a documentary chronicling Francesa’s rise to fame on Mike and The Mad Dog, a landmark show often credited with popularizing the sports talk medium.
“I don’t think it will be a heavy-handed hammer,” opined Strauss. “I think it’s sort of like we hope Pat realizes this is what he should do. Like, we hope we don’t have to have this conversation. We hope he sees the optics and sort of makes that decision on his own.”
This could be a case of McAfee having to pick his battles, standing down as not to upset the ESPN apple cart. Of course, there’s always room for nuance, and perhaps, as the dynamic evolves between McAfee and his new employer, the company will soften its stance, taking a more Laissez faire approach to guests.