By George M. Thomas
Beacon Journal sports writer
There might have been a band of 800-pound gorillas surrounding broadcaster Keith Olbermann as he went through the paces on a conference call with other members of the media to discuss his unlikely return to the ESPN family of networks with a late-night talk show Olbermann, slated to hit the air Aug. 26 on ESPN2.
Either the luckiest man in broadcasting, one of the most talented or both, Olbermann rejoins ESPN after many industry experts thought he’d nuked any bridges to his former place of employment after an acrimonious departure.
Apparently, they were wrong.
By his count, Olbermann has worked for the four-letter network six times between TV and radio and even he was thinking about when and how he could return days before his final SportsCenter broadcast nearly 20 years ago, he said.
But given his career history with stops at Fox, MSNBC, Current TV and local TV stations, Olbermann is sure about one thing — it’s never good to rule out where he’s going to be next, including ESPN.
“Every time I’ve made a prediction like that, even internally to myself, I was completely wrong,” he said. “There is no way to forecast my career path and I have given up trying.”
What he hasn’t given up is his love of sports, despite his recent background in political commentary on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which aired on MSNBC and Current TV.
A huge baseball fan and expert, he makes one pledge about his new show, which will air at 11 p.m. on ESPN2.
“What I would say about this is the four, key words are: it’s a sports show,” he said. “The idea that I would want to 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.”
But political issues aren’t completely off the table, ESPN President John Skipper said.
“There is no prohibition against speaking about when sports rubs up against anything else in our culture — music, film,” he said. “If politics happens to intersect with sports, you mention Trayvon Martin, that’s an excellent example, we would expect Keith to have an opinion there.”
Is there a concern that he might have alienated some segments of his potential audience with his prior political work? After all, to many, Olbermann was known as the left’s version of Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, a partisan who offered his slant on the news.
He offered “The Worst Person in the World,” a segment that aired almost daily and usually took aim at members of the Republican Party and those with a conservative bent. He also never hesitated to give his opinion in blistering commentaries that often lit up the liberal blogosphere.
In short, he’s no conservative.
He’s aware of the issue. He also sounded pragmatic when addressing it, saying there will always be people who don’t tune in for whatever reason. But he’s confident that it won’t be a big issue, using as an example his favorite sport.
“My guess is 5 percent of people associated with baseball would not be described as conservative and I’ve never had a problem with a ballplayer because one thing about sports is that it transcends politics and it is a place we often go to heal those wounds that politics inflicts on us every day,” he said.
Besides, he said, not doing political commentary any longer has its advantages.
“If you hold a different political point of view than the one I’ve expressed in the last couple of years, you probably should be very happy that I’m not doing politics anymore.”
The interest in returning to ESPN2, a network he helped launch, came from Olbermann about a year ago. With Fox Sports 1 gearing up and announcing its own substantial hire in Regis Philbin, who will host a talk show, it couldn’t be better timed. Skipper said that competition is a good thing, but it’s about more than that, he said.
“This makes us better and is consistent with our philosophy that we want good content on all of our networks, all of our platforms across all of ESPN,” he said.
Olbermann called his return symmetry and an opportunity for some closure.
“I’m grateful to work on what I hope is absolutely necessary viewing for sports fans, but also this chance to put a different ending on the story of my relationship with ESPN,” he said. “We are indelibly intertwined and I know that we can’t go back and undo everything that happened [nearly] 20 years ago in those environs, but I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can and I appreciate the fresh start.”