2023 Sports Media Awards


Sports media is changing more rapidly than ever. In the past year we've seen some seismic shifts in the landscape, with high-profile talent switching teams and venerable organizations opting to go in surprising new directions. Consumers are living in a golden age of options and the competition for eyeballs is fierce. Over the past several months, The Big Lead has routinely huddled to talk about who has captured our attention and, perhaps more importantly, discuss how they've done it. Handing out awards is both fun and daunting because there are far too many people doing great work to recognize them all. Here's our honest effort at highlighting excellence in sports media over the past year. Collectively we hope they serve as a snapshot of what the industry looks like right now. Even if it won't stay that way for long.

We present to you The Big Lead's 2023 Sports Media Awards.

Personality of the Year -- Pat McAfee

Pat McAfee is singular. There is only one version of him. While there may be other knockoffs kicking around the industry, no one can truly replicate what McAfee does, nor the energy with which he does it. His rise over the last few years has been nothing short of meteoric and he reached a new level in 2023. The thing is, we're not sure he's done yet.

In May, ESPN announced a new deal with McAfee, reportedly for $85 million over five years. The Pat McAfee Show moved to ESPN's airwaves while still going live on YouTube every weekday, and McAfee was set to join College GameDay full-time. The announcement was shocking given how rapidly the network had been cutting costs. That's how important it was to lock down sports media's brightest rising star.

No matter what he's doing, McAfee is never less than interesting. On his show, he puts guests at ease and gets more from them than other, more seasoned interviewers. The relaxed, fun-loving nature of his show produces great answers. Not just in his blockbuster interviews with Aaron Rodgers, but from all of his regular guests. The man also seems to have boundless energy and that shows in his work ethic. Despite all his new ESPN responsibilities, McAfee is still coveted by WWE and continues to make appearances with the company despite no longer being a regular commentator. He even had a four-minute match at WrestleMania 39.

While McAfee's style may not be everyone's cup of tea — he acknowledges as much — there's no doubting his reach or emerging clout in the industry. Pat McAfee matters and he's created a massive career in sports media in a few short years. That makes him the exception rather than the rule. The broader his purview expands then the more comfortable and versatile he becomes. This industry has shifted more towards building editorial around a personality than finding the right person to push content. Energy is infectious and pound-for-pound no one has more of it without straining authenticity. It's fascinating to watch him rub elbows at the top of the pyramid while keeping his own sharp for even brighter things ahead.

McAfee has risen to the top of the sports media pyramid and yet, somehow, there is plenty of room for him to grow. It was his year in 2023, and he likely has many more to come.

Nominees: Skip Bayless, Mina Kimes, Dave Portnoy, Shannon Sharpe, Stephen A. Smith

Best Play-by-Play Announcer -- Adam Amin

Over the past few years, we've been thinking about what the next generation of play-by-play broadcasting will sound like. Some of the genre's heavyweights are nearing retirement and a new crop of rising stars is poised to build their own legacies. That future seems to sound a lot like Adam Amin. Affable and professional but capable of the wittiest of repartee. Commentary injected with some youthful exuberance but also immune from sounding like it's trying too hard to be anything beyond the competent eyes and ears for a respected audience. Amin does three sports equally well and has every bit the gravitas of some of the names who tend to get more ink in the spaces people write about these matters.

"Over the last three-plus years of being at FOX and being able to do the Bulls at the same time, it's really important to me to be able to navigate through multiple sports," Amin told The Big Lead. "It's still something I care about doing. I was raised in the business as being the versatile guy and there's a point where you want to start narrowing things down and I was glad I was able to do it here with these two outlets. I still get to feel like I'm heavily involved in the things I care about the most and I get to do it with people I like to work with. That's all you can hope for."

Like an quarterback with an offensive coordinator, play-by-players benefit from having continuity with their partners, and Amin has been able to build some solid bases over the past few years. He sounds relaxed through the airwaves and a big part of that might be familiarity with the person next to him.

"Most broadcasts there's only like five to 10 moments where you have to be absolutely perfect," Amin said. "You know, the six or seven calls that are going to be on the YouTube highlights, the two stories you come in with that you really wanted to tell and you wanted to tell well or a rules explanation that you have to come up with at the two-minute warning. The rest of the time I think most people just want you to be accurate and palatable and sound like you're having a good time with the person next to you. That's been so much easier these last few years because I've been able to grow those relationships."

Amin shined in 2023. We have a feeling he'll be a candidate in this category for years to come.

Nominees: Joe Buck, Ian Eagle, Kevin Harlan, Jason Benetti, Beth Mowins

Best In-Game Analyst -- Robbie Hummel

In six seasons, Robbie Hummel has become one of the best sports analysts on television. The former All-American has displayed a brilliant basketball mind, a deep knowledge of the current state of the sport and smart humor along the way. Working for ESPN and the Big Ten Network for most of his career, Hummel has become a fixture covering B1G sports. He had become one of ESPN's most prominent college basketball commentators. But not anymore.

In September, it was announced that Hummel was leaving ESPN to join FOX and NBC to continue working Big Ten games, including for the Big Ten Network. It's a big move that will see the 34-year-old's profile continue to rise.

Hummel continues to improve, but it's shocking how good he is this early in his career. He's natural and at ease on-air and just seems incredibly likable. It's also easy to tell Hummel is genuinely enjoying himself during games, which in turn makes his work even more appealing to audiences. It's no wonder he's so in-demand at such a young age.

It feels like Hummel is the next Jay Bilas or Kirk Herbstreit — an analyst on the verge of becoming a long-term fixture for major networks. And he's just getting started.

Nominees: Doris Burke, Kirk Herbstreit, Trevor Immelman, Greg Olsen

Best Studio Host -- Scott Van Pelt

The conversation about what constitutes a studio host is interesting every year we do this because the target is ever-evolving. Putting an exact definition on the role isn't as important as understanding the feeling that comes when the job is done well. And to that point, there isn't a more capable set of hands in the industry than Scott Van Pelt's. There is no better place to be after a big game than his SportsCenter when emotions are still high and everything feels reactive. He's able to give the highlights gravitas and seamlessly shuffle in interviews with players, coaches and experts. Those late nights are essentially an epilogue for the latest chapter in sports.

"I’m just glad it still feels fun," Van Pelt told TBL. "We really enjoy doing it. You sit around and watch games then talk about them. It isn’t complicated. We hardly invented the post game show, but we’ve been lucky enough to do our version of one long enough where I believe it’s comfortable for the viewer, the roster of colleagues we have great rapport with, and the athletes and coaches who join us. That’s a huge part of what makes it work for any show that’s any good."

This year Van Pelt was also tapped to anchor Monday Night Countdown as ESPN continues to ascend toward top-of-class in NFL production. Then there's his work from the Masters and the PGA Championship, which serve as a reminder that he's as good as anyone from the links.

"Adding Countdown felt like an important part of the job description because while comfortable is good, complacent is not," he said. "Nine years into a show makes you comfortable with the routines, but if it leaks into complacency, it’s a problem. So, working in a new space and trying to create comfort and chemistry in a new setting is a challenge worth tackling. Or attempting to tackle, anyway. I just consider how fortunate I am to have a show that we truly have autonomy to produce, a new challenge tied to the biggest property at our network and the major golf pieces, which take me back to the start of the TV journey at the Golf Channel. That was almost 30 years ago. Which is impossible. There won’t be 30 more. Or 20. Or maybe even 10. Who the hell knows?"

Van Pelt has long been one of the best in the business in any category. In fact, we were shocked to realize we'd never honored him until this year. Handing him the award for Best Studio Host is long overdue.

Nominees: Malika Andrews, Ernie Johnson, Jamie Erdahl, Joy Taylor

Best Studio Analyst -- Mina Kimes

There’s little doubt that Mina Kimes would go No. 1 overall in a draft of NFL analysts. She possesses a rare combination of football knowledge and book smarts to go along with a teacher’s mindset. It’s hard to find media members who are not only intelligent enough to understand football at the same level as the players and coaches, but also gifted enough to break down that knowledge into bite-sized pieces that an audience can digest. Kimes has that, along with a versatile and natural on-screen presence that translates well to any of the platforms ESPN puts her on. She’s the network’s plug-and-play superstar, equally as capable battling in the take trenches with Stephen A. Smith on First Take as she is going frame-by-frame through a film breakdown with Dan Orlovsky on NFL Live

Beyond that, what makes Kimes so enjoyable to watch is that she obviously cares deeply about her chosen profession. Watching her on an ESPN set breaking down minute details is similar to watching a Dan Campbell press conference — there is no doubt that they eat, breathe, and sleep football. She's funny, easy to listen to, knows her stuff inside and out and is always ready to go. It's was a no-brainer for ESPN to lock her up with a new, multiyear contract.

This is the job Kimes was meant to have, and the audience is better for it. It’s nearly impossible to leave one of her segments without feeling like you’re more knowledgeable about the subject matter and that you've enjoyed it. At the end of the day, that’s the job, right? To both educate and entertain the masses for every second you’re on the screen. Kimes hits that mark every time and, if anything, continues to get better at the job with each passing season.

She was the runaway choice for Best Studio Analyst in 2023. 

Nominees: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Urban Meyer, Candace Parker, Kenny Smith

Sportswriter of the Year -- Seth Wickersham & Don Van Natta Jr.

The downfall of former Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder was a long time coming. Snyder’s egregious missteps (both financial and personal) had gradually made themselves known to the public over the course of many years. That came in part due to quality reporting, in part due to outside investigations, and in part due to Snyder telling on himself at every turn. Everything finally came to a head in 2023 as the disgraced owner was forced to sell the Commanders to a group led by Josh Harris and Magic Johnson. After nearly 25 years, Washington fans were out from under the thumb of Snyder’s shameful regime. 

The moment was meaningful to many. It also led to the finest piece of sports writing this year. In July, Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham teamed up to pen a deep-dive piece for ESPN, titled "He was free and clear': How the leak of Jon Gruden's email led to the fall of Commanders owner Dan Snyder."

It was a masterclass in sourced writing, a wealth of damning details that painted a clear and precise picture of how Snyder was the cause of his own unmaking. The scope and breadth of what Van Natta and Wickersham uncovered wasn't limited to Snyder, either. Decades of of conflict, anger, and resentment had to bubble over for Snyder to finally get forced out. Van Natta and Wickersham wrung every detail they could out of it all.

Wickersham and Van Natta are among the best at what they do and that has long been the case. ESPN gave them the runway to work to produce the defining piece of sports journalism this year.

"I take a lot of pride in the kind of work that I do with Seth and that I do for ESPN and the fact that in 2023 we're still allowed to take months to dig into topics like the National Football League, which is probably one of the most secretive groups in America," Van Natta relayed to The Big Lead. "And we're permitted to dig in there and find the stories behind the stories while being given the resources to do it."

"I was hired at ESPN the Magazine when I graduated from college in 2000, the publication distributions have changed but the commitment to the work has not," Wickersham told TBL. "They put an enormous amount of resources behind the work that Don and I do, the work that Wright Thompson does, Mark and Steve Fainaru. All of these people who have a lot of time and the ability to have their work governed by nothing other than when the story is ready to go, it gets published."

Throughout the history of the profession, the very best sports writing has made an indelible impact on those who read it. The Snyder expose is a prime example. Even readers unfamiliar with the subject matter came away with an intricate understanding of the power dynamics at play behind the ouster of one of the 32 most powerful men in football. Van Natta and Wickersham dug up information that had been buried for years with their extensive reporting. They left no stone unturned in their quest for knowledge they felt the public deserved. It was a remarkable piece of work and a top-notch case of great sports writing. 

Wickersham and Van Natta deserve recognition for that brilliant piece of reporting. In a category loaded with talented writers, they share our Sportswriter of the Year award for 2023.

Nominees: Nicole Auerbach, Bruce Feldman, Will Leitch, Kevin O'Connor

Insider of the Year -- Nicole Auerbach

When it came to 2023's two biggest stories in college sports, no one was more plugged in than The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach. The winner of our Sportswriter of the Year award in 2022, Auerbach's long track record of feature writing is well-established, but she's become a powerhouse in the breaking news department. This year, she was a constant source of reliable information for conference realignment and the massive Michigan sign-stealing scandal.

Auerbach is part of an excellent college sports crew at The Athletic, but she stands above the rest for her versatility. When the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC were expanding — and destroying the Pac-12 in the process — she was on top of all the machinations, both on Twitter and with incredibly well-written articles that tackled the issue from all angles. Auerbach was also first on the news of the NCAA's intention to alter the transfer portal, was quick with details on Mel Tucker's firing from Michigan State and, perhaps biggest of all, she was out front providing key details on the Michigan sign-stealing scandal.

Auerbach spoke to The Big Lead about the crazy year in college sports and how her work is the culmination of a carefully chosen path.

"I first started covering off-the-field issues in college sports close to a decade ago," Auerbach reflected. "I just remember an editor saying hey, go to an NCAA convention or cover a transfer rules or stuff like that and now that is the dominant thing to cover. It's been a crazy year. It was rewarding to see years of relationships and preparation — like understanding how to break down a court filing — all pay off as the news cycle just kind of never stopped.

"It's a wider range of possible outcomes in college because you have so many teams and you don't know where a giant story is going to pop up. The odds of a crazy story in college sports seem higher because there's weirder rules that have existed for a long time, plus you also the fans are at a different level."

In a loaded category with a number of outstanding, high-profile insiders, Auerbach was the best in 2023.

Nominees: Shams Charania, Andrew Marchand, Jeff Passan, Adrian Wojnarowski

Best Studio Show -- Inside the NBA

Inside the NBA remains the gold standard for sports studio shows. The truth is in the trophy case as the Inside crew took home their fourth consecutive Sports Emmy Award last year for Best Studio Show. Overall the program has won 17 Sports Emmy Awards in the Ernie Johnson/Charles Barkley/Kenny Smith era. No other program has a resume that comes close. Every other show is up against a dynasty in this category.

The show takes commentary to the limit by matching humor and a serious tone dependent on the subject matter, but it's really the physicality that the on-camera crew has come to exhibit in recent years that has further set it apart. Whether that means Shaq tackling Barkley or putting him in a chokehold, or just two guys running across the set to touch a giant television first. The show feels like home for dedicated viewers. It's a staple in the diet of many sports fans.

"We're four guys who live the game," Smith told The Big Lead. "We're not taking it on a date, we're married to it. And not just those of us who are on the air. Everyone on the entire team listens, and that's so important. Ultimately, though, it's the game that makes our show exciting. We're able to dissect it in ways most people don't and it feels real because it is real. We're doing the same show in the greenroom that you see on-air."

There's a truth in advertising with the Inside The NBA team that may drive Adam Silver crazy, but when Charles Barkley tells you not to watch basketball, you should probably listen. They are unapologetically honest and always themselves, no matter the circumstances. Each episode provides unfiltered entertainment. And sometimes they even talk basketball.

Inside the NBA has long been a juggernaut in this category. It is back on top in 2023.

Nominees: First Take, FOX NFL Sunday, Good Morning Football, NFL Live, NFL RedZone

Best Radio Show -- The Rich Eisen Show

The Rich Eisen Show has had several homes in its nine years of existence, from DirecTV to Peacock and now the Roku Channel along with SiriusXM. No matter where it’s been broadcast or syndicated over the years, the quality of content has remained consistent. Eisen is a tremendous host with a buttery voice, boasting skills honed by decades of NFL Network experience. He and his producers excel at finding the “main characters” of the sports world each day. The programming is always topical and flexible enough to pivot if something comes up between Hour 1 and Hour 2. Every topic is thoughtfully and thoroughly dissected to the core. Eisen follows every thread he finds to its natural conclusion. Rarely does the show leave any meat on the bone.

The most viral clips of the show come courtesy of an impressively broad list of guests. Eisen broadens his horizons to a degree that stands out in comparison to his peers. Not only is he landing NFL insiders, athletes, and coaches, he’s holding lengthy interviews with Michael Fassbender, Matthew McConaughey, David Spade and Jerry O’Connell, to name merely a few. These are good interviews, too. Eisen has a gift for making any conversation feel like it’s happening in a living room somewhere in the Midwest. It's always good-natured, inquisitive, and revealing in an entirely natural manner.

The Rich Eisen Show is rarely predictable. Whether it’s a new angle on a tired topic or a breakdown of the coolest scene in the newest blockbuster action flick by the main character themselves, each episode contains the possibility of an entirely unique experience for the viewer. And in this sports media world, few higher compliments can be paid.

Nominees: The D.A. Show, The Pat McAfee Show, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Mad Dog Unleashed, Schein on Sports

Best Podcast -- Pablo Torre Finds Out

It appears Pablo Torre has found the perfect vehicle to showcase his talent. A late entrant into the competition, Pablo Torre Finds Out took this category by storm and ultimately was the best sports podcast of 2023. But, is it really a sports podcast? We think so. Don't we? To be honest, we're not totally sure, but we do know it's fascinating, often hilarious and a bold new addition to the sports media landscape.

Torre is allowed to be himself in a longer format than we've seen before and thrives with that freedom. Whether he's playing Dan Le Batard old clips of himself, exploring why tech bros are so into MMA, examining what makes Russell Wilson fascinating, exposing FTX's sportswashing or doing a deep dive into Donald Trump advisor (and trick shot quarterback) Johnny McEntee, Torre is who he has always been, but more so. He's wildly intelligent, curious, quick on his feet and incredibly funny. The show feels like a conversation you'd have with your best friend — if that friend had gone to Harvard and knew way too much about far too many topics.

"This show feels like something I've been dying to host my entire life even if I only realized that recently," Torre told The Big Lead. "The premise is simpler than I realized — that journalism can be f---ing fun. The premise, the bet is, if I learn something new and I'm tickled by it and I'm smarter because of it then hopefully there are others who will feel the exact same way. I feel surprisingly validated by the attention our show has gotten. I didn't go into this looking for the validation of the algorithm and the metrics. This whole thing in a fragmented media economy is really hard in terms of raising your hand and saying 'please notice me.' My goal with forming the show was to make stories that I personally found entertaining. In the process, the surprising part of the validation is that I can switch my halftime speech at work from 'forget numbers, we're doing this with editorial sensibilities as our North Star' to 'by the way, the numbers agree with our direction."

Torre has been on the national sports media radar for nearly 15 years after starting out as a feature writer and reporter for Sports Illustrated. His career has taken many turns, particularly at ESPN where he became a regular on the network's panel shows, but this podcast might be the best work he's done. It finally feels like he's found his sweet spot. Pablo Torre Finds Out is a joy to listen to. And it was the best sports podcast of 2023.

Nominees: The Bill Simmons Podcast, The MMA Hour, Pardon My Take, Talkin' Baseball, The Right Time with Bomani Jones

Best Sports TV Series -- Welcome to Wrexham

Spending a little time with the citizens of a small town in Wales has the power to restore your faith in humanity. Welcome to Wrexham proved that definitively in its second season. The docuseries ostensibly tells the story of Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney attempts to turn around the fortunes of a Welsh club mired in the fifth division of English football. But it reaches heights far beyond the confines of that premise. FX's hit show isn't even about its two A-listers, or even soccer. It's an exploration of how the love for a sports team can bond a town and hold it together. Even through the worst of times.

In 2023, Welcome to Wrexham covered Wrexham AFC's quest for promotion out of the National League. A gripping battle with emerging rival Notts County ensued. All season the two teams were on a collision course toward the top of the table. While the program shows matches on the pitch with heart-pounding excitement, it soars when it gets to the heart of why this all matters. Segments about autistic superfan Millie Tipping, Wrexham's brilliant women's team, the bond between fathers and sons, getting to know the club's players away from the field and the lives of the various fans who are featured are what truly makes the show special. As we said last year when Welcome to Wrexham took home the win in this category, the citizens of Wrexham are the real stars of this show.

It remains incredible that with all the money spent on entertainment worldwide, the best show on television is about two Hollywood guys who bought a Welsh soccer club. And how they -- and all of us -- have been repeatedly inspired by a team, and a town, full of underdogs. The show gets in your heart and burrows its way into your soul. It's impossible to watch and not get emotionally invested in the twists and turns of every episode.

If you haven't watched Welcome to Wrexham, do yourself a favor and correct that error. It might just make you feel better about the world. For the second year in a row, the show takes home the Best Sports TV Series honor.

Nominees: Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the New York Jets, Quarterback, Winning Time

Best Live Event Coverage -- 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament, ESPN

Women's college basketball had a huge year thanks to the emergence of Iowa's Caitlin Clark as one of the most exciting athletes and best shows in American sports. Then Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey and the LSU Tigers showed up to give us a new rivalry to capture the sports world's attention. By the time March Madness rolled around, ESPN was ready and waiting to capitalize.

The 2023 NCAA women's basketball tournament had growing buzz before the games even tipped off. Once they did, the action was compelling and the broadcasts only added to the excitement. And it all only got better as they tournament continued.

"The basketball was absolutely incredible," ESPN's former VP of Production, Patricia Lowry said. "The level of play is so good now. Then you have the engagement that fans had, the new fans that were brought in, looking at averaging 9.9 million viewers. It's incredible that women's college basketball is at this point.

"We've had some good years but I think everyone's acknowledging that last year was special. You prepare for it, you put the best people in the best position to succeed and I feel like if you look at our team they nailed it."

Ryan Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo, Andraya Carter and Holly Rowe were on the scene to call the action and keep viewers appraised of what was happening on the floor. Elle Duncan anchored the studio coverage with help from Carolyn Peck, Monica McNutt, Lobo and Carter. And on top of that Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi provided an entertaining MegaCast.

Between the basketball and the broadcast ESPN saw its biggest ratings ever for the First Four, Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final Four and Championship Game. Basically, a huge success story for ESPN and women's sports however you look at it. The network deserves a ton of credit for its work.

Nominees: 2023 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Super Bowl LVII, 2023 Women's World Cup

Sports Story of the Year -- Deion Sanders at Colorado

We know what you're thinking. How can the Colorado Buffaloes football team, which finished with the same record as lowly Michigan State this season, possibly be the biggest story of the year? Well, not so long ago, Boulder was the epicenter of the football universe. Deion Sanders replaced a bunch of old luggage with Louis Vuitton and came out of the gates with wins over TCU, Nebraska, and Colorado State -- a murderers' row of opponents who combined to go 15-21 and not make a single bowl. This inspired a response from the media hype machine that somehow exceeded what happened during the most insane peaks of Tebowmania.

Every pregame show and most of the studio shows ponied up money to broadcast live from Boulder, and well-intentioned people said some things out loud that should never have been allowed. Not only was Sanders the next Nick Saban, he was the next Phil Jackson. He was treated as a revolutionary before any successful revolution took place. In short he was George W. Bush in front of the Mission Accomplished banner. Chris Russo took a gummy and wagered more than most bloggers make in a quarter on the Buffs' money line against Oregon. And then the wheels fell all the way off as Colorado dropped seven of their last eight and momentum ground to a halt.

It's not that The Big Lead is necessary anti-Sanders. There's a lot to like about his coaching style and he is a trailblazer. Colorado is back on the map as a destination and the Buffaloes should be competitive for the next few years. But the whole saga crystalized — more than anything else that happened this year — the specious day-trading and ridiculousness that the take-o-sphere has wrought upon us all. Will Leitch, before things took a turn, wrote the best thing we read on the whole topic, which could serve as the only thing that needed to be said about it. But hey, let's meet back here next August when everyone does the exact same thing again.

Biggest Sports Media Acquisition -- Dave Portnoy Buys Back Barstool Sports

After building the foundation for Barstool Sports brick-by-brick, Dave Portnoy sold PENN Entertainment 36 percent of the pirate ship back in 2020, and the rest back in February of this year for $388 million. The sports-betting gold rush has yielded strange bedfellows but this one had the most public friction, culminating in the disputed firing of Ben Mintz in May, a personnel decision that subsequently resulting in PENN's stock cratering. This rocky marriage came to an abrupt end in early August as wandering eyes led PENN to jump in bed with ESPN and rebrand its sportsbook to ESPN Bet. As part of the split, Portnoy was able to re-acquire his creation for the tidy sum of $1.

"We underestimated just how tough it is for myself and Barstool to operate in a regulated world," Portnoy said in a video announcement that harkened back a more analog era of the upstart. "Every time we did something, it was one step forward, two steps back. We got denied licenses because of me. You name it. So the regulated industry (is) probably not the best place for Barstool Sports and the type of content we make. ... I am never going to sell Barstool Sports ever. I'll hold it 'til I die."

Rarely do we see win-win-win situation outside of Michael Scott's demented brain but, in the infancy stage of this triangular trade, it does appear that everyone involved will conceivably get what they want. PENN gets the more universally palatable four-letter partnership. ESPN gets to dive in headlong and fancy-free to a wagering world it resisted for years. And Portnoy gets the autonomy over Barstool that he once had and is perfectly comfortable yielding.

It was massive news when it happened and it appears to have been the perfect move for all parties.

Shocking Moment of the Year -- LIV/PGA Merger

In the 16 years The Big Lead has been online, there have been perhaps two or three stories that were as shocking and earth-shattering as the surprise PGA Tour-LIV merger that exploded out of an otherwise sleepy CNBC morning block. A tightly-guarded secret immediately became the only thing anyone was talking about, enrapturing both golf-centric media and casuals. The overwhelmingly negative response was no surprise yet it was a calcifying moment for a segment of the press that can be criticized for being too soft. In the absence of empirical facts and plans — which to this day remain a bit opaque — the canvas was wide-open for opinion pieces and everyone involved delivered. 

Though commissioner Jay Monahan took the lion’s share of the shrapnel, thoughtfully considered commentary about the numbing and depressing creep of sportswashing on all corners of the universe came en masse. It was a car crash in real time and it spawned additive rubbernecking because, well, how in the hell could this possibly be happening? We’ve become almost irreversibly fractured in both what captures our interest and where we go to get our fix of that interest. That all paused under the weight of a rare collective experience where no one really knew what was going on and ticked through some pretty complex emotions. And again, we cannot stress enough that we’re talking about golf here. Golf!

Best Media Feud -- 'Undisputed' Hosts vs. the World

Less than a year ago Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe were one of the most inseparable duos in sports media. Just reading those two names together you can probably hear Sharpe saying his former co-host's name in his unmistakable voice. But 2023 saw Skip and Shannon against the world. And each other.

On January 2nd, Damar Hamlin's heart stopped during the final Monday Night Football game of the season and Bayless tweeted about it. Sharpe didn't show up for work the next day. They would never recover. By the end of May Sharpe was leaving Undisputed and by the time the next football season started, he was at ESPN, reigniting the Stephen A. Smith — Skip Bayless rivalry as Skip added a number of former First Take alums to join Undisputed.

Not that Sharpe was alone. Charles Barkley continued to be a vocal critic of Bayless with Paul Finebaum celebrating his calling Bayless an idiot on a podcast. And Dan Le Batard told Stephen A. Smith that he hated what he and Bayless had done to sports television.

And if media feuds weren't enough, Sharpe proceeded to get into it with Morant, Tee Morant, and the Memphis Grizzlies. Dillon Brooks called Sharpe a "blogger." And the entire time Sharpe and Bayless kept pleading with Ja Morant to get his act together.

A few months into their first football season apart the former debate partners are still trying to find their new footing. Sharpe can't seem to let Skip go while Bayless' act is already wearing thin with some of his new friends. A reminder that the debate grass isn't always greener on the other network.

Special Journalism Award -- The Daily Northwestern

When was the last time a student newspaper beat everyone in the country to a major story and took down a deeply-entrenched, major conference head football coach? That's exactly what The Daily Northwestern did with its coverage of Northwestern running a hazing program on Pat Fitzgerald's watch. Fitzgerald was a beloved alum of Northwestern who was about to enter his 18th season as the school's head coach. As the paper's summer reports on the hazing continued, Fitzgerald quickly found himself out of a job.

Despite immense backlash at the university and from big-name alums, the paper stuck to its reporting and continued to churn out valuable information, breaking story after story about the scandal. When Fitzgerald was fired on July 10, it vindicated the outlet's reporting. Follow-up reports gave the story scope while nailing down all the details. From its first shocking report of the hazing program's existence, to a former player detailing his experiences, to multiple articles concerning lawsuits filed over hazing incidents, the outlet's reporters worked the story from start to finish, doing extraordinary work. It culminated with an extensive feature detailing the numerous scandals overseen by Northwestern president Michael Schill.

The Daily Northwestern displayed courage, dogged determination in getting the story and outstanding reporting in the face of outside criticism. The paper's work on the hazing scandal was an example of what journalism can be at its absolute best.

Lifetime Achievement Award -- Hubie Brown

Hubie Brown is nothing short of a basketball legend. After decades as a coach at the high school, college and professional level, he's forgotten more about basketball than most will ever learn. And audiences have been allowed to absorb his knowledge on broadcasts for decades.

Over the last 20 years, Brown has been an NBA analyst for ABC and ESPN, providing some of the smartest, sharpest commentary in the sport. Whether working with legends like Al Michaels and Mike Breen, or stalwarts like Mike Tirico, Mark Jones or Dave Pasch, Brown is always the star of the show. Despite being 90 years-old, he's still excellent on the mic. It shouldn't shock us though, he's been at this game a long time.

After one professional season with the Rochester Colonels that ended in 1959, Brown went into coaching. For most of the next three decades, he was a coach across every level. He was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1978 for his work with the Atlanta Hawks. But, when the Atlanta Hawks fired him in 1981, Brown did some broadcasting work for CBS. The New York Knicks quickly hired him and ended his burgeoning career on mic as soon as it began.

Luckily for all of us, the Knicks were foolish enough to fire Brown in 1986 and CBS hired him back full-time. He worked with Verne Lundquist, then in 1988 CBS made him its lead NBA analyst and paired him with Dick Stockton through the end of the network's NBA coverage following the 1990 NBA Finals. Brown shifted over to work for the Philadelphia 76ers, then Detroit Pistons before TNT snapped him up. Brown worked for TNT through the 2001-02 season when the Memphis Grizzlies hired him.

Brown resigned from the Grizzlies on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 due to health issues. ABC snapped him up less than month later.

While he was a great coach, Brown has long been an absolute star as a broadcaster. He's brilliant, affable, puts audiences with ease and can explain complex basketball concepts in the simplest ways. He's a joy to listen to. There's a reason he's in both the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

NBA coverage simply wouldn't be the same without Hubie Brown on the mic. He's done it for decades and is still at the top of his game. We're lucky to have witnessed it.