Stephen A. Smith interviews WWE CEO Nick Khan on First Take. Stephen A. Smith interviews WWE CEO Nick Khan on First Take. (Awful Announcing on Twitter.)

There’s long been a lot of discussion of if ESPN should cover professional wrestling, and if so, how. While the company covers a wide range of sports and sports-adjacent news, any move by them to cover pro wrestling in particular provokes more comment than most subjects thanks to matches’ predetermined outcomes. That hasn’t stopped ESPN from covering it, though. And their coverage took an interesting turn Thursday, with First Take featuring an exclusive announcement of the WrestleMania lineup and a Stephen A. Smith interview with WWE CEO Nick Khan. Here’s an earlier-in-the-show promo from The Usos that the lineup announcement was coming.

Here’s that lineup announcement:

And here’s how Smith started his interview with Khan:

There are a couple of notable things there. One is that this seems very outside the comfort zone for Smith, who not that long ago was telling Michael Kay to only talk about football, basketball, or baseball and not hockey. He later claimed that was a joke, but the NHL, which ESPN actually has a business relationship with (unlike WWE), was reportedly not amused. So it’s interesting to see Smith stretch himself to professional wrestling shortly after proclaiming there are only a few sports he wants to talk about. But he certainly can rattle off names of notable past wrestlers, as he did with Khan:

Beyond that, this adds to ESPN’s complicated history of covering wrestling. Back in 2015, they debuted a weekly WWE recap segment on SportsCenter and started breaking some injury news, but what they did and didn’t cover took some flak. And some even questioned if they were being paid by WWE for coverage, which they denied. 2016 saw them dive further into wrestling coverage with live SportsCenter hits from WrestleMania and a new WWE vertical, but the criticisms continued, even prompting a public editor (remember those?) column. In 2017, ESPN aired a 30 for 30 (Nature Boy) on Ric Flair, and their wrestling coverage continued to grow from there. But it wasn’t easy, as editor Dan Kaufman said to public editor Jim Brady in 2018:

“Wrestling has been more of a challenge than esports,” Kaufman put it succinctly.

Much of the focus of my 2016 WWE column concerned the difficulty of taking professional wrestling — with much of the action scripted — and inserting it into an operation that covers unscripted sports. But that hasn’t been the problem Kaufman has experienced. The real challenge?

“We’re never going to be the place for the hard-core wrestling fan,” he said.

Part of the reason for that is that there are still many inside ESPN who aren’t sure how much the network should be committing to this effort.

“It’s fair to say that, right from the start, there were execs who were conflicted about [covering WWE],” Kaufman said. “It doesn’t feel like, to a lot of them, something we should be doing.”

And that divide has continued a bit since then. There’s been a bit less standard WWE coverage, especially with SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman (who helmed much of the on-air coverage) leaving the company in 2017 (and returning to WWE, where he worked previously). But there have still been a number of notable WWE things, including three different This Is SportsCenter ads with Becky Lynch in 2019.

The company’s actual WWE vertical (which is accessible from the list of sports on the main homepage) looks strange these days, though. It has a bunch of WrestleMania coverage on the left, including stories from ESPN writers usually seen elsewhere, including Mike Coppinger (boxing, MMA), Greg Wyshynski (NHL), and David Dennis (Andscape). But its “top headlines” on the right are all from February or before, except for the very top one, a Reuters story on WWE executive chairman Vince McMahon paying the company back for the costs of an investigation into alleged misconduct. So while the company is doing a lot around WrestleMania here, they haven’t exactly been covering WWE week in and week out.

At any rate, ESPN has clearly landed on the side of WWE coverage being “something we should be doing” for now, at least with WrestleMania. And that’s interesting to see, especially considering that they don’t currently have U.S. WWE rights (which are held by Fox and NBCUniversal). But WWE’s two primary rights deals end at the end of 2024 (the deal that moved WWE Network to NBCU’s Peacock runs through 2026), so it is possible ESPN could get into the mix then. And they did take the coverage to rights deal pathway with the NHL (and did so after some conflicting comments on how and if they should be covering that league).

None of that means ESPN’s necessarily going to do much more WWE coverage. It also isn’t clear if they plan to make much of a bid for WWE rights. But that will be an interesting storyline to watch as we get closer to new WWE media deals. And it’s at the least interesting to see WWE get this kind of First Take spotlight.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.