Sports media was owned by athletes in 2023 Photos via USA TODAY, edit by Liam McGuire of Comeback Media

The definition of “new media” has been hard to pin down since Draymond Green introduced it to sports fans last year. The part that’s clearly new is who’s holding the mic, which increasingly is athletes like Green. Those athletes have poured into the media in recent years, but 2023 felt like a landmark moment when athletes went from novelty sports personalities to the dominant voices in the space.

Pat McAfee and his show dominate ESPN’s lineup. Shannon Sharpe left Undisputed, formed a partnership with Colin Cowherd, and arguably has a bigger audience on YouTube than he did on Fox. The Kelce brothers host the biggest sports podcast in America, while the Mannings produced the year’s biggest sports documentary series. And JJ Redick leveraged a growing NBA show to a promotion to ESPN’s No. 2 NBA broadcast booth. Athletes led the news cycle across sports all year.

Even at lower levels, athletes have succeeded in overtaking traditional talking heads as sports segment producers. From Micah Parsons or Mookie Betts at Bleacher Report to Deebo Samuel and Rob Gronkowski at FanDuel TV to Gilbert Arenas at Underdog Fantasy, what is said by current and former athletes drives coverage and debate across the landscape.

On the business side, Sharpe’s Shay Shay Media and its deal with Cowherd’s The Volume created a potential major player in digital sports media that could have real value to investors. Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, valued at $400 million, not only makes Quarterback for Netflix and the ManningCast for ESPN, but is increasingly reforming ESPN’s digital media slate through deals with talent like Mina Kimes and Kevin Clark. All the Smoke’s leap from Showtime to Meadowlark Media and DraftKings brings trailblazers Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson toward a larger platform and a more stable business. Most modern sports documentaries are like authorized biographies, executive produced by the subjects themselves.

Even startups in the space like Underdog Fantasy or Wave Sports and Entertainment have staked their business to athletes like Arenas, Rasheed Wallace, the Kelces, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Athletes are no longer sideshows or sidekicks in sports media. They are the main event.

Call this Generation 3.0 of athletes in sports media. Originally, they were sidekicks to the journalists. Tom Jackson was there to balance Chris Berman. Baseball Tonight belonged to Karl Ravech and Tim Kurkijan and Peter Gammons — Dave Campbell was there because he loved the game and could keep the show moving. Even debate television used to be built around journalists like Skip Bayless, Woody Paige and Michael Wilbon.

In Generation 2.0, athletes achieved equal billing with the old-timers. They have Jalen Rose, Desmond Howard, Sharpe, Mike Golic and countless local legends to thank. Today, athletes play a leading role. They are the show.

It’s too early to tell what this evolution will mean fully. If 2023 was the first year athletes eclipsed journalists in sports media, then 2024 will be the first year of the rest of the era. But several consequences are clear already.

Flies On the Locker Room Wall

If you’ve ever consumed sports talk content where an athlete joins as a guest, you probably have heard the hosts resort to the uncreative but nevertheless smart strategy of giving the floor to the athlete for freeform storytime. Anyone who loves sports loves to hear athletes tell stories. And it’s even better when those athletes are charismatic and have some link to one another.

That’s basically the ethos behind athlete-driven media. It’s simply more fun to hear Peyton and Eli Manning bust each other’s chops while debating play-calling or clock management than it is hearing Troy Aikman perform the more stodgy color commentary role. There are great sports shows with a more traditional format that will withstand the test of time, but for most audiences, a replacement level athlete talk show clearly outranks two radio vets yelling at each other.

The same can be said for more serious interviews. Increasingly, power players are legitimizing athlete-driven programs by sitting for interviews. This year alone, both Redick and McAfee interviewed NBA commissioner Adam Silver, while All the Smoke landed Will Smith’s first post-Oscars slap conversation and sports influencer Druski joined Sharpe on Club Shay Shay to open up about his life and career in a rare interview.

Athletes are seen as less threatening, comrades rather than interrogators. And in a year that brought news that McAfee paid Aaron Rodgers for his weekly appearances on The Pat McAfee Show, that assumption has been supported.

Few in traditional sports media have replicated the comfort and convictions athletes bring to the space, so audiences keep flocking their way.

From Opinions To Perspectives

You won’t hear athletes deny this dynamic. They are proudly biased. The feeling Green and others affirmed as their platforms grew in the media is that traditional, mainstream sports news sources were needlessly harsh toward athletes. In turn, athletes who joined the business must look out for one another.

“The new media, we protect guys,” Green once said. “This isn’t about tearing people down.”

Of course, the paradox here is that audiences tuning in to hear athletes discuss themselves are getting one side of the story directly from a primary source. That news coming from a personally produced podcast may be more authentic, but it can also be all the more biased without the filter that journalism ideally provides.

The McAfee crew not only gives Rodgers the freedom to direct the conversation as he chooses, they are on his side in his strange battle against The Man. Green posted a solo episode in April defending himself after a suspension for stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ chest, but hasn’t recorded since July. Even among those who don’t host shows, any paid gig merely gives them the opportunity to champion their teams or defend their dignity on a bigger platform.

Journalists deserve blame here, surely. The disintegration of trust toward reporters opened the door for something different. What may feel silly, like Wilbon rocking a Cubs jersey or Bill Simmons being a Celtics homer, became a slippery slope toward constant bickering over agendas and narratives. When the people delivering news and acting as a conduit to the fan falter, they get skipped over.

Still, what gets lost when athletes control the megaphones is the fan. Perhaps the strongest argument in support of local sports talk hosts or the stubborn newspaper columnist is that they give fans a seat at the table. Local reporters are supposed to balance their views with that of the fan, to deliver news that matters to people who love the city’s teams. Athletes carry no such counterweights, which means that while the “athlete perspective” is by no means monolithic, they are free to reinforce a viewpoint that favors them.

We may sometimes laugh at the Joe Benignos and Bill Plaschkes, but they stand for a segment of sports fans who will get lost if it’s just athletes aping their perspectives every day. Those guys used to feed a pipeline to the bigger networks. Now, the NBA and NFL fill that pipeline.

Not To Be Taken Seriously

Big picture, what athlete-led shows nail that traditional programming misses is an energy. Whether the preferred comparison point is a barbershop or a barstool, athletes bring out a chiller mood that audiences clearly respond to. Perhaps one of the quieter effects of the Stephen A. Smith-Skip Bayless era of sports media is that aggressiveness is a turnoff, no matter the format. Athletes debate, but it’s often either literally in the haze of smoke and drink — or might as well be.

Aside from the fact that there’s no one left to host them, there is no space in the vibe continuum for a show like Outside the Lines or the Sports Reporters. It harshes the mellow.

Nobody would really complain about taking sports less seriously in theory, only athletes’ domination of media is coinciding with sports becoming a much more serious business. The sports industry is projected to reach more than $620 billion in market value by 2027, making it potentially one of the 30 or so biggest industries on the planet. Sports touches geopolitics, social policy, and economics. As Silver’s strange slip-up in his interview on McAfee showed, things can get weird when all these worlds collide.

Still, in an era in which sports are competing with many more entertainment options than ever before and younger audiences especially may see sports media personalities as influencers more than analysts, athletes bring something useful to the table for their producers and employers. It’s much easier to imagine a fan watching McAfee or All the Smoke and wanting to tune into an NFL or NBA game than from a typical game broadcast, studio show or podcast.

Hardly anyone is ready for covering sports in the 2020s. But the old sports media business at least had structures in place to try. Even as it may bring in more viewers, a new iteration of the business that emphasizes a relaxed approach and fewer guardrails simply may not have the tools to cover the news.

Generation 3.0

Former athletes and coaches giving sports commentary is not new. Today, in an era when personality and content rule, athletes are reconstructing the business.

Everyone else has to keep up. “I tell you this wholeheartedly: it’s going to be hard for places like ESPN,” All the Smoke host Stephen Jackson recently told Durant’s Boardroom. Yet ESPN isn’t fighting to keep up, it has already transformed. McAfee dominates the network, and Manning is working to modernize it. Redick is on his way to being top dog on the NBA.

The real loss fans will feel through greater “authenticity” is a loss of proximity. The best reporters are authentic too, getting the facts of the matter from those involved. Athletes simply can sit in their skin and appear more real, but what they say is a different matter. By embracing a one-sided perspective, audiences lose the full picture.

Outliers may still exist. How streamers will alter the broadcasting landscape is still unclear. With docs like Quarterback, the insertion of an athlete (Manning) as producer seems to create more trust from the subject. That will benefit audiences. Perhaps as sports networks move away from journalism, news networks find a void to fill with sports reporting. While its ratings could suggest otherwise, perhaps the synergistic, personality-driven King Charles on CNN featuring Charles Barkley and Gayle King is a harbinger of Generation 4.0, for better or worse.

But if the money continues to follow attention, our new era is here. Athletes owned sports media in 2023, and in 2024 they will shape our views. They earned it.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.