Is ESPN still a destination for the world’s biggest sports media personalities? It’s no secret that over the past two years the company has experienced an exodus. Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd, Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock, and Mike Tirico have all departed and a narrative has been created that the worldwide leader in sports is no longer interested in forking over big dollars to the nation’s top talents.
But do they have to?
One can make a case, that exposure for an individual is largely increased when they perform on ESPN. Stephen A. Smith re-signed with the company when he probably could’ve earned more elsewhere, but he was wise enough to recognize the value he gains from being associated with the company.
Make no mistake about it, Smith is still well paid. But, as competition has increased, talent now find themselves in a position to reap the benefits financially, even if it reduces their influence professionally.
Yesterday on Dan Le Batard’s ESPN Radio show, the subject of Skip Bayless departing was raised. Le Batard spoke candidly about it, and provided a behind the scenes account of a conversation he had with Colin Cowherd when he was entertaining moving on. Kyle Koster of The Big Lead transcribed the commentary, and a video is available on The Big Lead’s website:
“The ego of these guys is such that they don’t believe they’re choosing money over winning. They believe they are going to make the difference. It’s happening right now in the sports opinion business. I told Colin Cowherd not to leave this spot. We were having conversations — now I’m revealing private conversations that I shouldn’t be — even though it would have benefited us, I was telling Colin Cowherd I don’t think you leave. You leave, you’re going to get lost, you’re going to do it for money and no one’s going to know where to find you. We don’t do this to have our voices stuffed in a drawer; we do this to be heard.”
“Skip Bayless doesn’t think he’s going for money,” Le Batard added. “Skip Bayless thinks he’s going to make a difference. And he’s not. What’s been happening with the athletes is happening in the gasbag business.”
LeBatard isn’t wrong that there’s a drastic shift in terms of relevance when a top flight personality vacates ESPN, and signs on at another network. The reach of brands such as the CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network, and FS1 have yet to enter ESPN’s neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t in the future.
It also doesn’t mean that an individual who has an opportunity to vastly improve their financial standing shouldn’t explore it if they feel it will make other aspects of their life more rewarding. Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, and Dan Patrick took similar risks and they’ve turned out just fine, even if they broadcast to smaller audiences.
However, if personalities are going to move on from the four letter network, and expect immediate results in another arena, they’re likely to find themselves disappointed. You don’t make the jump without understanding that it’s a long-term play. ESPN may find itself right now in unchartered territory, but the brand still remains powerful. They can also reverse their stance on paying premium dollars for talent tomorrow if they choose to.
What this ultimately boils down to is giving up influence, and relevance for the almighty dollar. Critics and fans of an individual may find fault with a personality’s decision to chase the money, but I’m certain that the person making the decision will gladly welcome media criticism, and public scorn in exchange for enjoying a better life.