Blog by: George Thomas and Ron Ledgard
Keith Olbermann, probably to no one’s surprise, is out at ESPN – again. It’s a familiar refrain for a guy who’s bounced around the broadcast arena in a consistent fashion. The resume is long and yes, there are a few charred bridges left in his wake.
Just the other day, in this space, I wrote about the reality of what’s coming down the road for sports networks – albeit briefly. Rights fees for live events haven’t just ballooned, morphing into that Uncle Norman who somehow manages to engulf half of Christmas dinner by himself.
The suits are putting the high-priced talent on the endangered species list. With some shows that will remain nameless, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For others shows, it’s a loss. Olbermann’s show falls into the latter category.
If you do not provide color commentary or play-by-play and you work for the ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or any other cable sports network, take some advice from Michael Jackson and his brothers: “Just look over your shoulder, honey.”
Olbermann’s show topics met at the intersection of sports, pop culture, race and the great debate of the day. He produced high-brow fare and took his viewers beyond the numbers, outside the lines and to where those topics meshed in important ways.
He was to ESPN television what Bill Simmons was to ESPN.com in terms of heft. Intellectual. Certainly brilliant. And somehow he blended those things to create a unique experience – which was based on his political show at MSNBC – for sports fans who appreciated some layers to their sports.
And he generally left the politics at the door – unless it involved sports. With Olbermann gone, Washington football team owner Dan Snyder worries about one less detractor, as does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Abandoning the politics was no problem for Olbermann because he showed more than once that sports figures provide plenty of fodder which for him to play. Ask Jimmy Haslam III or Dan Gilbert.
“What I would say about this is the four key words are: it's a sports show,” he said when rehired by ESPN two years ago. “ The idea that I would want do anything that was not specifically sports-related even in a political context, I don't know where that would come from. If I wanted to still be doing politics, I'd still be doing politics.
“Surely this is something else. No political segments. No cultural segments are planned. They're not restraining me. They don't have to. I'm not intending to be political in the sense of what I've been doing in my previous few jobs.”
He was true to that. However, given that he and Simmons are both gone, those who look beyond statistics, the walk-off homers and the game-winning touchdown drives, it’s going to be difficult to believe that some sort of sports politics revealing itself at the Worldwide Leader.
Jettison Simmons and Olbermann rids the network of two huge thorns in Goodell’s side. Both leveled neutron bombs in Goodell’s direction over the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident. Goodell was left standing, but the criticism, not just from those two it should be added, left him scorched.
It’s entirely possible that this recent move may be little more than a business decision on ESPN’s part. A subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., that particular unit dragged profits down in the second quarter, according to reports.
“Keith is a tremendous talent who has consistently done timely, entertaining and thought-provoking work since returning to ESPN,” according to a network statement. “ While the show’s content was distinctive and extremely high quality, we ultimately made a business decision to move in another direction. We wish Keith nothing but the best and trust that his skill and ability will lead him to another promising endeavor.”
According to Deadspin, the big cheeses at Disney ordered their minions at the sports network to cut $100 million from the 2016 budget and a $250 million from the 2017 budget. When talking that kind of cash, it’s easy to envision event rights becoming an issue in the future.
Cutting Olbermann and Simmons before him is akin to whacking at low-hanging fruit, but it’s going to look like the network saw an out regarding a sometimes polarizing figure who tweaked the nose of a major partner and took it. According to multiple reports, Olbermann’s commentaries were a bone of contention in his negotiations.
The optics do not look particularly good for a network accused of cancelling an original television series, Playmakers, about the world of pro football because the NFL expressed its displeasure. Amid denials, it eventually vanished like Fredo in the Godfather II.
Olbermann probably has plenty of money in the bank, but the one thing the ESPN bosses got right – he’ll find a home. After all, there is a presidential election next year.