Up six points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals Tuesday with a 2-1 series lead, the Phoenix Suns were a quarter away from heading home up three games to one, where they’d be heavy favorites to close out the series in five games. This would have not been ideal for ESPN and ABC, as estimates have the network bringing in around $50 million per game in ad revenue, and a shorter five-game series leaves a lot of money on the table as opposed to a six- or seven-game series. (Ratings also tend to rise for games later in a series.)
But the Bucks rallied late, and now we’re either headed to a six- or seven-game series, which will end up being a ~$50 million or ~$100 upswing for ESPN and ABC (depending on if the series goes six or seven). While the financial upswing is indeed a big deal, ESPN is now staring down an incredibly awkward situation with the reported imminent departure of Maria Taylor to NBC. Taylor’s contract with ESPN reportedly expires this coming Tuesday, the same night as Game 6. Taylor has been anchoring the ESPN/ABC pregame/halftime NBA Countdown show, a source of friction as fellow ESPN anchor Rachel Nichols now infamously alluded to the move as being diversity-motivated.
ESPN is now inching towards the possibility of a seven-game series in which Taylor is no longer under contract with ESPN for the final game. While this on its face could be fixed by just hiring Taylor for a one-off assignment of hosting Game 7 (which would be held Thursday the 22nd), this seemingly low-hanging fruit fix may not materialize for several reasons.
1- NBC seems keen on getting Taylor signed and deployed ASAP for the Tokyo Olympics, which start Friday, July 23rd. Given how important the Olympics are for NBC and how Taylor would be breaking into the network with new people and production practices, it would not be unreasonable to get out the door as quick as possible to hit the ground running at NBC.
2- It’s not clear Taylor and her camp would be motivated to accommodate such a request from ESPN given the acrimony of how this has played out in the press and over the last year.
While ESPN was likely aware that Taylor was on her way out when they announced her as the host of NBA Countdown for the Finals, I’m guessing the possibility of her being unavailable for a Game 7 ( one that usually doesn’t happen) didn’t register as something they would have to plan for. While I suspect many would fault for ESPN for being in this sticky situation, let’s keep in mind that Taylor’s contract was signed years ago and ahead of a pandemic that pushed this year’s NBA season and playoffs back more than a month while also pushing back the Tokyo Olympics back a full year.
July 20th, 2021 would have been an ideal slow time for ESPN and Taylor. That would have given ESPN and Taylor about a month-plus after the end of a normal NBA playoffs, as well as a month-plus before college football started, for ESPN and Taylor to finalize an extension. Obviously the pandemic shattered that dependable timeline, and now her contract expiration date has become EXTREMELY problematic.
Per Andrew Marchand, ESPN does not yet have a plan in place here.
“If Taylor were to leave, ESPN would have the unorthodox scenario of potentially having a different host to end a marquee event than the one who started it.
ESPN could try to see if Taylor would stay through the Finals, even if she decided to go with NBC.
No final decision has been made by Taylor, but one is expected soon.”
This was already shaping up to be one of the more messy high-profile splits in recent sports media history. It’s now significantly more compounded with the timing of Game 7, the Olympics, and Taylor’s contract. Should Taylor indeed finalize her NBC deal and opts to hit the ground running there right away (likely to the dismay of ESPN should they have a Game 7), the network then faces two difficult decisions.
1- How would ESPN handle Taylor’s sign-off for Game 6? ESPN has generally been a lot more gracious than other networks with allowing talent to sign off on air, but this would significantly draw more attention to the Nichols and Taylor situation, one that many viewers would be totally oblivious about. A sendoff would be the right thing to do, but the execution of it would be seems akin to walking across a tight rope thinner than a piece of floss given the circumstances.
ESPN would look bad by not having some type of moment of closure on Taylor’s career at ESPN, but also would be drawing negative publicity by allowing for such a moment to happen. But not allowing Taylor a candid moment with the audience would also give her further ammunition to blast ESPN if and when she decides to share more about her experience at the network. There just really isn’t a good option for ESPN here.
2- Who would ESPN tap to host pregame and postgame coverage for a potential Game 7? Rachel Nichols was, up until a few weeks ago, by far the most obvious answer, to the point where this wouldn’t be much of a question. But Nichols has been sidelined from any involvement in this year’s Finals broadcasts and is still trying to shore up her standing in the company in the wake of her leaked comments about Taylor.
While Nichols could be seen as the best choice for an already awkward one-off assignment of a high-profile winner-take-all NBA Finals game, she’s actually arguably the worst. Those who passionately feel Taylor’s exit from ESPN was strongly influenced by ESPN’s treatment of black employees would be up in arms over the fact that Taylor would be departing the company with Nichols gaining Taylor’s high-profile assignment. The optics of Nichols benefitting from the departure of Taylor are just terrible.
I even went as far as to say that Nichols standing in the company could be in jeopardy should Taylor leave. Taylor’s departure now seems inevitable. (I’ve backed off a bit from this, as Nichols’ contract is reportedly up in 2023, and Stephen A Smith being a raging xenophobe has certainly provided some cover for Nichols.)
Sage Steele, Michael Eaves, Scott Van Pelt, or perhaps Michael Wilbon could be some options to keep in mind should Game 7 happen, Taylor doesn’t stick around, and the network shies away from kicking over a hornet’s nest by having Nichols on.
So while ESPN executives will be hoping for a seven-game series and the 50 million ish dollars that comes with it, the downside is it will come along with an epic PR nightmare and headache, one that will continue to fan the flames of this story and draw further attention to the network’s treatment of black employees. I think for many at this point, we’re more interested in how ESPN is going to try to thread the needle here opposed to who actually wins the NBA Finals.