This was a banner year for sports media. After an incredibly difficult 2020, the landscape returned to something resembling normal in 2021. Our favorite studio shows returned to in-person work, there were full seasons of live sports to debate, and plenty of chances for new voices to break through.
Here we celebrate the best from the industry with our 2021 Sports Media Awards, honoring those who stood out over the past year.
Sports Personality of the Year -- Maria Taylor
Maria Taylor had quite a year as she was thrust to the center of two enormous sports media stories. She handled both with poise and grace, despite the cacophony of noise around her. The former host of ESPN's NBA Countdown, Taylor found herself in the spotlight when audio of a call between Rachel Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn became public. In it, Nichols ripped ESPN's decision to replace her with Taylor as host of the NBA Finals.
Around the same time, Taylor's contract was set to expire and she was one of the hottest talents in sports media. She made the bold move to depart from ESPN after eight years and joined NBC Sports. Taylor made her on-air debut during the 2020 Summer Olympics, is a host and contributor for Football Night in America and will contribute to NBC's Super Bowl coverage this season as well.
It was a massive move that dramatically changed the landscape at both ESPN and NBC. Despite everything going on around her, Taylor just kept working.
Nominees: Dan Le Batard, Stephen A. Smith, Mike Greenberg
Best Game Analyst -- Jeff Van Gundy
There’s something special about Jeff Van Gundy, who has ascended to the highest analyst post in the NBA’s glitzy portfolio, saying whatever he wants, when he wants, with ultimate authenticity. He was ahead of the curve in terms of treating a game broadcast like a podcast, interacting brilliantly and dynamically with both Mike Breen and Mark Jackson. He creates a layer of unpredictability — at times endearing, at times enraging. JVG’s unique talent is his adroitness, the speed at which he shift gears and steers the conversation into a new direction. He’s not afraid of confrontation and tension and has amazing recall, but also the memory of a volume shooter.
ESPN recently announced Van Gundy has signed an extension and will be at the front of NBA Finals coverage, which should be welcome news to all.
Nominees: Kirk Herbstreit, Daniel Cormier, Cris Collinsworth
Best Play-by-Play Announcer -- Joe Buck
Joe Buck’s consistency is both what makes him great and what makes him such a divisive figure in the eyes of the sports-watching public. He is always ready to go for a big game, rarely making mistakes and keeping a cool head throughout. Yet he’s on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of ire for a man who has been at the top of his profession for so long.
Buck’s diverse skillset is remarkable when you take a step back and really examine it. How many people in the broadcasting industry can call three NFL games and six World Series games in an 11-day span, as Buck did last fall? Nobody else in the industry has that opportunity, and very few have the skillset to pull it off.
That continued in 2021, as Buck called a full slate of football games as the Fox NFL lead play-by-play man and yet another Fall Classic. He was on the broadcast for the Braves' beatdown of the Astros to take home their first title in decades, then traveled to Indianapolis two days later to call Jets-Colts on Thursday Night Football, before finishing his week in Kansas City for a marquee matchup between the Packers and the Chiefs. There is no more valuable play-by-play broadcaster in the game today, and no moment is too big for Buck. He proved that with stunning clarity again this year.
Nominees: Ian Eagle, Brian Anderson, Kevin Harlan
Newcomer of the Year -- Aqib Talib
All too often in sports media, the newcomer is simply a cookie-cutter copy of the previous talking head. Aqib Talib is anything but that.
In his first year providing color commentary on Fox in 2020, Talib brought a fresh voice to the broadcast booth. His cadence and verbiage was nothing like the stodgy commentary we’d grown used to, and by gawd that is exactly what the NFL broadcast scene needed.
After a successful first year, Talib was picked up by Fox for a second year in the booth. He also signed on with Colin Cowherd’s The Volume podcast network. No matter where you find him, Talib provides a fresh perspective presented in an authentic way. It's hard to find anybody more original than that.
Mina Kimes on Talib: Like a lot of people, I was taken aback the first time I heard Talib on the call for an NFL game. I had no idea he was even working in a booth, and his voice--with its distinct twang--sent a jolt through my living room. Since then, he's been appointment television in my house. Aqib is vibrant, funny, energetic, and uncompromisingly himself, and when he's breaking down plays--especially on defense--I'm not only entertained, but I always learn something. Having had the opportunity to work a couple of games with him during the preseason, I can also say that he's a tremendous teammate (which isn't surprising, based on how beloved he was in locker rooms). He's been a refreshing addition to the world of sports media, and I can't wait to see what's next.
Nominees: Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Greg Olsen
Sportswriter of the Year -- Tyler Tynes
After establishing himself as a rising star at The Ringer, Tynes left for GQ in March and immediately embarked on an incredible run, penning pieces on Ben Simmons, Anthony Edwards, and Scottie Pippen that were beautifully crafted and contained passages that captured attention far and wide. Tynes has a way of getting his subjects to open up and be human, with an ear for what hasn’t been shared before that should be. This fearless approach hits the reader in the face and is a skill journalists can work for decades before mastering. Even larger things lay down the road but this has been a coming-out party that deserves to be celebrated in the moment.
Nominees: Jeff Passan, Seth Wickersham, Christine Brennan
Best Radio Show -- The Pat McAfee Show
In a little more than two years, The Pat McAfee Show has made a massive impact on the sports media landscape. What appeared to start as McAfee just having a good time on air has morphed into a vitally important piece of the daily sports media puzzle.
McAfee, co-host A.J. Hawk, and his band of in-studio cohorts have turned sports talk radio on its head with an irreverent show that blends biting humor, A-level interviews and the insight only a former athlete could provide. McAfee has garnered legions of fans with his everyman approach while also earning tremendous industry credibility due to his ability to mine important details in interviews. McAfee seems to disarm his guests with humor and his infectious energy, then displays his supremely underrated talent as interviewer by asking incisive questions. That combination has made the show a must-listen on a daily basis.
Scoring weekly in-season interviews with Aaron Rodgers was a coup that elevated the show and further showcased McAfee’s ability to connect with regular guests. Rodgers -- and others -- open up to McAfee in ways they don’t elsewhere and it has made the show more than just a good time.
Andrew Marchand on McAfee: He's passionate and he's real and I think, especially now, when you can really go direct to consumer that this genius comes through the screen. He's just being himself. He has an engaging personality. When it comes to media he has very good sense of what he should be doing. He can build his own business now. He really can just reach his audience without a middle man.
Nominees: The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Tiki and Tierney, The Dan Patrick Show
Best Podcast -- Pardon My Take
The boys are back in the top spot again. For yet another year, Pardon My Take dominated the sports podcast landscape to earn this honor. Big Cat and PFT Commenter produced a stunning year of content, built on the foundation of comedy and insightful interviews that have been the hallmark of the show for its duration. While Barstool Sports has evolved into an empire that largely revolves around Dave Portnoy, its best, and most important, property is Pardon My Take.
The show’s blockbuster interview list for 2021 included Peyton and Eli Manning, Bill Burr, Carmelo Anthony, Mick Foley, JB Smoove, Guy Fieri, Brooks Koepka and many more. The interviews are tight and well-conducted but also different from what you’ll hear elsewhere in the world of sports podcasting. It’s all part of what makes the show great, and the best the market has to offer again in 2021.
Nominees: Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Lowe Post
Insider of the Year -- Adam Schefter
Adam Schefter is basically a living, breathing ESPN news ticker — if that ticker had people returning its texts. This has been the case for years. With sources everywhere, Schefter is on top of every football story and transaction for ESPN. If he’s not first, he’s following closely behind with more details than the initial report.
In 2021, he was all over the NFL offseason’s biggest story as Aaron Rodgers tried to walk away from the Green Bay Packers. Schefter owned the Rodgers beat in real time, rocking the football world with reports that the quarterback was done with the organization and even possibly ready to retire from football. When the Packers finally got through to Rodgers with a list of concessions, Schefter was there to break the story of the unlikely comeback.
In addition to his work behind the scenes, Schefter made a much bigger push on social media in 2021. His Twitter feed has been full of pictures, graphics and even memes as he has looked to expand his social reach. If there was a big story, he was probably tweeting about it to his nearly 9 million followers.
Scott Hanson on Schefter: I’ve known Adam for more than 15 years, dating back to when he was a hard-charging reporter for NFL Network. His meticulous dedication to his craft impressed me immediately. His thoroughness and track record of quick accuracy are the reason he is one of only three alerts I have on my phone. When Adam tweets – the football world cranes its neck. Congrats on the award, Schefty. Extremely well-deserved and a testament to your work ethic and drive. All the best in the future.
Nominees: Adrian Wojnarowski, Shams Charania, Ariel Helwani
Best Sports Media Reporter -- Andrew Marchand
Everyone may want to cover sports media, but no one does it better than Marchand, who captures his second consecutive crown. His initial reporting on a dispute between Maria Taylor and ESPN regarding her contract was the first signal of the drama to come. The New York Post reporter also launched a podcast with John Ourand, a runner-up for this year's award, and is one of most indispensable writers currently behind a paywall. His scoops set the conversation and his commentary is dynamic based on the situation, never kowtowing to the prevailing opinion.
There’s a common misconception that breaking stories grow on trees or are given out by a benevolent fairy, but the truth of media reporting is that it’s like an iceberg. It takes so much unseen work behind the scenes and much of it that never makes it to print. Not a job for the impatient or easily deterred and Marchand has proven once again to be the industry standard.
Nominees: John Ourand, Kevin Draper
Most Versatile Sports Media Member -- Mina Kimes
Mina Kimes has been at ESPN since 2014, but the past few years have shown she has become absolutely invaluable to the brand. She was a cornerstone of the now-cancelled Highly Questionable, developed into a stellar, reliable panelist on Around The Horn and her addition to the cast of NFL Live has been a perfect chance to display her incredible football knowledge. Kimes can break down advanced stats while also cracking jokes and being completely at ease, bringing a different element never before seen on the show.
Kimes’ ability to effortlessly float between the loose, often-humorous debate format of Around The Horn, to the silly, comedic style that defined Highly Questionable, and the serious analysis she does on NFL Live makes her the most versatile talent in sports media today. Kimes elevates every show she appears on, no matter the format.
Dan Le Batard on Mina Kimes: It has been breathtaking to watch how quickly the quirky computer grid named Mina Kimes has downloaded all the requirements needed to be exceptional in this field. Kind of like the way Keanu Reeves learned how to pilot a helicopter in The Matrix. She went from clumsy and shy to super confident — and she's still lovably super clumsy! She seemed to go from rookie to dominant in less time than it took you to read this. She knows more about football than anyone I know who didn't play or coach it — and she communicates that information better than almost anyone who did play or coach it. Her study and work ethic and level of care and commitment are unmatched. In 30 years, I've met almost no one as good as she is at the nonsense we do.
Nominees: Pablo Torre
Sports Media Event of the Year -- Dan Le Batard FreeDumb
Relaunching like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the audacious project of 24 straight hours showcasing the state of Meadowlark Media, then very much in its infancy, could have gone terribly wrong in any number of ways. And it did to some extent, but therein lies the secret. Much like Le Batard's own show, FreeDumb was at its best when it steered into the skid. The star-studded affair was a non-stop revolving door of surprises, from a spaced-out Pat Riley to Greg Cote playing from behind to a remarkable batch of observations from Mike Schur, who became Stugotz in more polished form.
Proving the Pirate Ship could navigate in big waters, the special reintroduced Le Batard and Friends to the public and showcased the potential for a first-year enterprise with lofty goals and expectations.
Sports Book Author of the Year -- Mirin Fader
It is a difficult task to write a biography, to capture the essence of a person through a series of interviews and stories told. Yet Mirin Fader did so perfectly with one of the most fascinating subjects in basketball in Giannis and the remarkable tale of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The timing couldn’t have been better, as Fader spoke to Giannis and those closest to him in the years and months leading up to his legendary NBA Finals run that culminated in his first championship with the Milwaukee Bucks. Fader not only gives readers insight into how the two-time MVP rose to basketball stardom, but paints a picture of the cultural significance of the man himself in Greek life. He is more than merely one of the best players in the world. He is a symbol of racial injustice and poverty in Greece, a figure who will play an important role in the country’s battle against racism now and in the future.
Fader is the vehicle through which her readers can understand Antetokounmpo as a person, a player, and a guide shining light onto problems far bigger than what happens on the basketball court. It’s not an easy balance to strike -- yet Fader did so effortlessly, and was rewarded with a place on the New York Times’ Bestsellers list in her first foray into book writing.
Nominees: Seth Wickersham, Matt Sullivan
Biggest Sports Media Acquisition -- Peyton and Eli Manning
After years of trying to hook Peyton Manning, the elusive white whale of live broadcasting was finally reeled in by ESPN in 2021. As an added bonus, ESPN snared another big fish who might turn out to be just as bright a media star: Peyton's brother Eli.
Manning had been working with ESPN on Peyton's Places, a documentary series about football, and that showed his ability on camera. That work helped prepare him for an alternate broadcast of Monday Night Football that debuted this year. Teamed with brother Eli and a rotating panel of guests, Peyton has been everything we expected. But the big surprise has been Eli, whose aw-shucks personality plays perfectly off of big bro’s jokester, one-liner ways.
The ManningCast has been a massive success for ESPN, drawing more positive attention and publicity than anything ESPN’s primary broadcast has done in over a decade. That it took this long for Peyton to sign on only increased the fervor over his debut and neither he nor Eli have disappointed.
Nominees: Ariel Helwani, Drew Brees, Maria Taylor
Best Studio Show -- NFL RedZone
The best studio show in sports right now is a one-man broadcast that features appearances from hundreds of guests every single episode. NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson spends his Sunday afternoons glued to one spot for seven-plus hours helping fans navigate up to nine NFL games at a time. Every week he leaves it all out there on the soundstage as he and his crew show America literally every single touchdown scored on every single autumn Sunday.
Hanson calls games and guides viewers seamlessly through an often crowded afternoon. When the witching hour arrives things sometimes get crazy. If you’re lucky Hanson will have to call the end of four games simultaneously.
RedZone is the only studio show you have to watch to keep up with every game. Most are recaps or previews, but RedZone is the game. Or games. The most telling thing for any good show is that when it goes away, fans freak out. For many people, to not have RedZone is to not watch football. What other studio show can make that claim?
Nominees: Inside the NBA, Around the Horn, Big Noon Saturday
Best Sports Television Series -- Formula 1: Drive to Survive
Over the course of three seasons, Formula 1: Drive to Survive has given us the deepest look into an entire sport we’ve ever seen. The series manages to cover every angle of F1 in a digestible way, bringing the participants, rivalries, complex on-course dynamics, and intensity of competition to life. Americans specifically have eaten the show up, as evidenced by F1’s increasing popularity since the show debuted.
Season 3 was easily the best effort we’ve seen from Netflix’s crew. The storylines were more complex and thorough, the interviews were better and the cinematography continues to be the best we’ve ever seen in a sports television series. Special praise must go to Episode 9, which covered Romain Grosjean’s fiery crash on the opening lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix. It might be the best episode of a sports docuseries ever. Formula 1: Drive to Survive was far and away the best Sports Television Series of the Year.
Nominees: All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs, Last Chance U: Basketball
Meme of the Year -- Brooks Koepka vs. Bryson DeChambeau
Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau had a rollercoaster of a year. Their general annoyance with each other had simmered for a while, but in the spring it boiled over. Footage leaked of Koepka reacting to Dechambeau’s mere presence. The video was amusing, the still image perfect. Denying there was tension between the two was officially impossible.
The rivalry intensified, but at times seemed almost playful. Dechambeau leaped in the background of another interview while Koepka mostly poked fun at DeChambeau’s misfortunes. Fans taunted Bryson, calling him “Brooksie” at tournaments. Dechambeau had them removed. Brooks bought them beer.
Things cooled when both made the U.S. Ryder Cup team and Bryson endeared himself to the American crowd. The rivals played nice and even embraced each other in public view. It seemed like they might be cool, but then Koepka hinted there was one person on tour that he would want to fight. That didn't happen in the pair's edition of The Match the day after Thanksgiving, but Brooks did unleash a similar eye roll.
Dan "Big Cat" Katz on Brooks vs. Bryson: As a completely unbiased viewer and fanatic of the game of golf that would never pick a side when it comes to Bryson vs. Brooks I think this rivalry is so appealing because Brooks is a laid back guy that people find relatable and Bryson is a uptight jerk that everyone has experienced at some point in their life. They're oil and water when it comes to their approach to the game. Bryson posts mini documentaries about his weight lifting and club head speed trials whereas we never see that side of Brooks. Then when they arrive at the golf course Brooks has objectively been a better golfer in the big moments. Again I'm completely unbiased but Bryson is a douche and Brooks is not only very attractive but also nice and cool and just a dude you would want to kick it with. Again I'm unbiased and have nothing to do with this rivalry whatsoever.
Lifetime Achievement Award -- Jackie MacMullan
You’ll see the word “trailblazer” thrown around a lot when anybody speaks of Jackie MacMullan’s lengthy sports media career, and rarely does a shoe fit so perfectly. MacMullan, who retired from ESPN this past summer, is a trailblazer in every sense of the word, both in the basketball and journalism world.
A lifer in all regards who began writing about sports for her high school paper at 15 years-old, MacMullan worked her way up the ranks at the Boston Globe to become the paper’s first female columnist in 1982. She was the first woman to receive both the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing. She is an inspirational and crucial figure for women in a male-dominated industry whose impact cannot possibly be understated.
MacMullan’s NBA reporting and writing has been among the best in the business for nearly four decades. Whether it was breaking news or feature writing, analysis presented on TV and in print, few could match her talent and body of work. She became one of the faces of ESPN’s basketball coverage when she joined the network in 2008 and quickly became a cornerstone panelist of Around The Horn.
MacMullan’s influence will be seen and heard in the sports media world forever, and it may be a while yet before we see anybody rival her time atop the basketball industry as a writer, reporter, and personality. She's one of the all-time greats.