Let’s be honest — Pat McAfee doesn’t fit the mold of your usual ex-ballplayer analyst. For one, he didn’t play a position of much consequence (how many specialists land studio gigs in their post-playing career?) or for terribly long, retiring months prior to his 30th birthday. He’s not as eloquent or conventionally good-looking as his GameDay colleague Kirk Herbstreit, eschewing immaculately tailored suits for black tank tops (of which he seems to have an infinite supply) and a gaudy gold chain. He swears like Sam Jackson and can’t be bothered to sit down (Roman Roy can relate). Hailing from the rust-belt town of Plum, Pennsylvania (a northern suburb of nearby Pittsburgh), McAfee is as blue-collar as they come and does little to hide it.
But that’s part of his appeal, isn’t it? The everyman charm, the underdog narrative of a small-town bumpkin crashing the party, tapping into a new audience overlooked by legacy media. Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not as if McAfee, armed with little more than a can-do attitude and an endless reserve of confidence, lucked into this, unwittingly birthing a content empire that, according to reports, will soon land him at the most recognized brand in sports media. McAfee bled for this opportunity, raising his profile over the course of six long years, culminating in his expected departure from FanDuel in the coming weeks.
Like industry titans Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and Stephen A. Smith, McAfee is, at his core, an entertainer, a loud, scene-stealing carnival-barker who, naturally, has found a home at WWE, routinely taking the mic on SmackDown broadcasts while occasionally stepping in the ring himself. McAfee played the heel role to perfection with his star-making performance at the 2019 NFL Draft, breathing new life into a stuffy broadcast that needed a pick-me-up (especially by Day 2, with Mel Kiper Jr. and the rest of ESPN’s analyst crew running on fumes).
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) April 27, 2019
That’s a good illustration of the McAfee experience, his energy and passion more than making up for his relative lack of polish. Timing is everything and McAfee, to his credit, got on the live-streaming train just as it was leaving the station, borrowing the best parts of Dan Le Batard and Dan Patrick (pioneers in the “sports shows that aren’t actually about sports” genre) to create The Pat McAfee Show, a chaotic, three-hour sprawl of interviews, stories, rants and occasional football analysis.
Brash as he is cutting wrestling promos or chewing the scenery on GameDay, McAfee tends to avoid prodding questions that might fall under the umbrella of “gotcha” journalism, a courtesy appreciated by his interview subjects including weekly guest Aaron Rodgers. Right or wrong—it’s debatable whether McAfee deserves blame for giving Rodgers a platform to espouse COVID misinformation—in the content game, access is half the battle. In this regard, McAfee’s lack of any formal training works to his benefit, providing a safe landing spot for the mercurial likes of Rodgers and similarly, high-profile athletes afraid of being cornered by seasoned journalists. You could reasonably argue McAfee’s rolodex of celebrity pals is as valuable as his actual brand, a factor that was surely baked into his cost in negotiations with ESPN.
McAfee, in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson (often credited as the father of “gonzo” journalism), isn’t afraid to make himself the story, gleefully spilling the tea on his ongoing feud with Brett Favre, who filed a defamation lawsuit against McAfee, only to withdraw his complaint months later. While some might find McAfee’s man-child aesthetic off-putting, looking like a Theta Chi pledge with his closet of “way-too-old-to-be-wearing-this” muscle shirts, the 36-year-old knows his audience, openly rebelling against the starched, old-guard nature of traditional media. McAfee’s relationship with his fans is a special one, continually thanking them for their help in launching him to another, unimaginable tier of wealth and status.
I can’t thank you all enough..
Our MASSIVE announcementhttps://t.co/uKeZrO6SEP
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) December 9, 2021
The irony, of course, is that McAfee is about to sacrifice much of his creative freedom at Disney, the same company that, time and again, muzzled Le Batard for his outspoken views, leading him to fly his freak flag elsewhere at DraftKings. McAfee rarely wades into politics—the closest he came was a segment addressing our own societal hypocrisy in supporting brands like Apple and Amazon while framing PGA defectors as morally bankrupt for aligning with Saudi-backed LIV Golf.
Sports media personality Pat McAfee goes off about the hypocrisy of people criticizing golfers for joining the Saudi-backed LIV tour:
"I am not pro-Saudi Arabia's actions … but I'm sick of the athletes being the only ones being attacked for getting this money." pic.twitter.com/0W9MSywjWv
— The Recount (@therecount) July 21, 2022
That will help from rocking the boat, though, assuming ESPN is indeed his next destination, it will be fascinating to see how the network plans to use McAfee and what compromises, if any, will be required of him upon joining a hugely influential brand with investors to protect. Will it be a case of McAfee falling into line, dialing back his YouTube persona in an effort to be perceived as “legitimate,” or will ESPN afford him carte blanche, giving him the runway to recreate—with new wrinkles added—what made the previous version of his show so compelling?
McAfee has chosen wisely throughout his brief but undeniably successful media tenure, leading us to believe the deal he’s been offered is of the Godfather variety (it would almost have to be to walk away from $120 million). Regardless of the final outcome, the fact that there’s a bidding war going on with millions at stake, all for the right to employ a sailor-mouthed punter in gym clothes, is a testament to what McAfee has already accomplished, becoming, seemingly overnight, among the most coveted commodities in sports media.