A new story in the Hollywood Reporter written by Marissa Guthrie sheds some light on the behind the scenes drama that surrounded ESPN’s attempt to report the 6pm SportsCenter with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. It’s something, she writes, that still has Bristol divided.
Internal discord over the 6 p.m. SportsCenterexperiment co-hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith — and yanked after less than a year despite four-year deals worth $10 million each — still lingers.
The whole piece focuses on ESPN’s obsession with reversing the whole “MSESPN” image that Fox Sports Radio’s Clay Travis helped cement last year in his numerous media appearances and written pieces complaining of the network’s liberal bias. Travis is also the one who dubbed Hill and Smith’s take on SportsCenter as “WokeCenter,” which apparently was a real problem for some ESPN executives, who saw Hill’s exit as a good thing for the brand.
When Hill, who became a lightning rod with critics dubbing the show “WokeCenter,” left in February, Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vp and executive editor of studio production, quipped in front of a room full of people: “One down, one to go.” Four ESPN employees tell THR that Dave Roberts, ESPN’s vp content, was heard characterizing the show as “too black.” (Through a spokesperson, Roberts, who is African-American, vehemently denies saying this.)
Still, not everyone shared this opinion of Hill or Smith or their take on SportsCenter.
“It’s not that they were too woke, or too black, the problem was they were too new,” says a veteran senior executive. “They were too unfamiliar to the 6 p.m. audience. From the second they started they were up against internal crap, the traditionalists shitting on them, and they faced harsh criticism externally. It was panic from moment one. And the network didn’t do a good job of defending and supporting them.”
ESPN has attempted to remove any potential controversy from the SportsCenter brand by putting Sage Steele (who may step in some PR hot water from time to time, but those times are never on air) and Kevin Negandhi in the anchor chairs at 6pm. Guthrie also notes that in other areas, ESPN is adding conservative voices, particularly on First Take.
Among its biggest stars is First Take‘s Stephen A. Smith, who has professed support for Donald Trump, though not on every issue. Meanwhile, Will Cain, a conservative who has had stints at The Blaze and CNN and has been an ESPN contributor since 2015, got his own ESPN Radio program in January and is now part of the ESPN TV firmament. And Roberts, say three sources, has suggested replacing First Take moderator Molly Qerim with Cain.
Guthrie’s piece focuses on the factions within ESPN. She posits that there are people who believe a return to the opinion-less highlights-driven content the network was built on is the only way to survive. Others say that ESPN has to experiment to find its groove in a world that is full of more choices for sports fans. That is why Hill and Smith were allowed to try something new with SportsCenter. The same is true of Scott Van Pelt’s midnight show and the company’s investment in digital products like the Snapchat edition of SportsCenter or ESPN+.
“Norby is pushing antiquated SportsCenter stuff wherever he can,” says an on-air personality. “There are good creative people there. I don’t think it’s an accident that if you did a happiness quotient, the farther way from Bristol people are, the happier and the more productive they are.” Or as one source puts it: “It’s a battle for the soul of ESPN.”
You can read the full article here.