Just as Stephen A. Smith influenced the debate era in sports media, Pat McAfee hopes his presence at ESPN can encourage the celebratory era of sports media.
It’s official, Pat McAfee is joining forces with ESPN, the network he once waged war against for briefly banning their talent from appearing on his show. But old wounds were seemingly healed when McAfee joined ESPN’s College GameDay last year. And now McAfee is set to go all in with ESPN, moving his daily podcast to the network, much to the dismay of his supporters who fear he gave up his freedom to join the establishment.
McAfee has urged his audience to keep faith that he will maintain total editorial control of his show, with the ability to speak freely and even curse on occasion despite airing on the Disney-owned ESPN. Wednesday afternoon, McAfee returned to his show from paternity to leave and addressed the continued backlash over his move to ESPN.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) May 17, 2023
“Sports media has really been one particular thing for a very long time,” McAfee said. “And I know there’s people that do different things other than debate, but the debate era certainly became a thing in sports media. And debates naturally lead to division and nitpicking and tearing people down because that is what debates do. So I think a lot of sports media was trying to mimic what Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless created.”
“As somebody that was on a team, that got a chance to see a lot of players get ridiculed in the media and the reaction of it, I always assumed, ‘Hey, can we not be a little more positive?’ I think a lot of people thought that way,” McAfee continued. “We always wanted to celebrate sport.”
Ask any Pat McAfee Show fan or loyal listener why they love the show and the answer probably won’t start with, “because he celebrates sport.” If everyone thought McAfee just sought to “celebrate sport,” there would be no concern about his joining forces with ESPN. But it’s McAfee challenging Brett Favre’s defamation lawsuit, his polarizing conversations with Aaron Rodgers, his support of LIV Golf, and his brash and colorful commentary that has people wondering how this marriage will play out.
“I think we have a real opportunity here to change sports media as a whole,” McAfee added. “Because just like Stephen A. and Skip had success and everybody wanted to replicate it, if we’re able to get in there and showcase that ‘Hey, you’re able to cover sports in a celebratory fashion in a way that you’re happy for people as opposed to trying to prove why people shouldn’t be in the position that they’re in,’ I think there’s a chance that that could maybe ooze into other decisions that are being made and we have a real opportunity here to change a narrative about an entire division of people, sports media.”
Maybe McAfee can bring a less combative brand of sports talk to ESPN and the industry. But he was already on the verge of changing sports media by proving a live-streaming show doesn’t need to be backed by Barstool, CBS Sports Radio, SiriusXM or ESPN to be immensely successful. Now, McAfee is joining ESPN. And that raises the question: will McAfee continue to change sports media on ESPN or will ESPN change McAfee?
One thing his concerned supporters can lean on, however, is McAfee already set the precedent that he has no problem leaving a company if the partnership isn’t going the way he expected it to. And McAfee knows his audience will follow.