ESPN's Pat McAfee Problem
Television isn't Youtube, at least not yet
UPDATE to this story: A live airing of dirty laundry.
Now that I’ve compartmentalized the Kimmel vs. Rodgers controversy into its own article, let’s take a look at ground zero for that fight: The Pat McAfee Show. To be clear, Rodgers situation aside, the show isn’t very entertaining, at least in my opinion. That’s not an ideologically motivated take, in lieu of recent events. I think I’ve demonstrated that, unlike much of the sports media, I’m not in a raging lather over the Jets quarterback. It’s just that the show isn’t good, and that tells us something about sports television.
I believe that the Pat McAfee Show struggles overlap with a broader media issue, with bigger implications than just daytime sports TV: Acts that play in certain mediums don’t work on other mediums. McAfee is a Youtube star and ESPN wants to be in the Youtube business. The question is whether this gigantic cable company can absorb and harness a personality who’s right for that wilder, freer medium.
You’d think it’d all be so easy. McAfee himself is talented, even if it’s not fashionable to admit that. You can see telegenic charisma in the heel turn he made on a Georgia crowd. If actual Deadspin still existed, he’d probably get described as Sports Guy Fieri, Soft Focus Barstool, or some pun about creatine. He wears a tank top, bounces around a lot, and shouts slurry words through a thick Pittsburgh accent. He just isn’t going to be a carefully mannered Media Twitter darling like, say, JJ Redick.
But you don’t need to be a Media Twitter darling to have the juice. Disney’s McAfee situation is of interest in part because he represents a big, high variance bet. ESPN CEO Jimmy Pitaro brought McAfee in, at a hefty price. Senior ESPN VP Mike Foss, a renowned social media whiz still in his early 30s, oversees the McAfee project more directly. So McAfee has buy in from both the company’s top boss and its hottest rising executive star. They’ve tethered their futures to a man known to be erratic, and proven to be a short timer at institutions. He’s been paid lavishly, handed a huge daytime show and given a spot on the College Gameday set.
The risk of it all has perplexed people inside and outside the World Wide Leader. Other ESPN talents resent McAfee’s millions at a time when the company is bleeding money and jobs. They see, with chagrin, an incoming McAfee post a grinning photo with Disney CEO Bob Iger, four days before ESPN layoffs are announced. The refrain from doubters is “This guy? Why this guy?” The answer to “Why this guy?” is indivisible from why his show is failing.