ESPN Is in a Bind With Michelle Beadle and NBA Countdown

Paley Prize Gala Honoring ESPN's 35th Anniversary Presented By Roc Nation Sports - Arrivals
Paley Prize Gala Honoring ESPN's 35th Anniversary Presented By Roc Nation Sports - Arrivals / Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

As the NBA returns from the All-Star Break and heads towards the playoffs, ESPN has a bit of an issue on their hands: NBA Countdown airs four times a week, the lack of chemistry is palpable, it rarely if ever creates news or nuggets for the broader conversation, and there’s no simple solution to fix the underlying issues that they could deploy anytime soon.

While NBA Countdown has had issues from both a talent and production perspective for years, many of which existed before Michelle Beadle even got there, as the full-time host of the show she has not done anything to distinguish the program as a destination. Replacing her altogether would hardly fix everything, and it’s also hardly an option: When she left Get Up, Beadle extended her contract and the network is on the hook for several more years at millions of dollars annually.

Nevertheless, if you compare Beadle’s inertia in the NBA’s conversational fabric to Rachel Nichols’, it’s Tyson vs. Spinks. In the last few months, Nichols has arranged sit-down interviews with newsmaking stars like LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving and she grilled Mark Cuban after the Mavs’ investigative report into workplace misconduct was complete.

Where The Jump is both proactive and reactive to the news cycle, Countdown is only the latter. There is not an innate sense that Beadle eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff. On social media, for example, she has tweeted as many times about her vacation in Napa this week — four — as she has about the NBA since the beginning of 2019.

Now, the failures of the show are not one-thousand percent Beadle’s fault. The three main former players on the show — Paul PierceChauncey BillupsJalen Rose — are all within five years of age of each other (41-46); Tracy McGrady is 39, but his NBA playing career overlapped entirely with Billups and and all but one year with Pierce. They draw on similar perspectives, and haven’t really gelled with Beadle or each other.

Countdown’s producer Bill Wolff, the original producer of Get Up, has not enacted any changes to the show that make it feel less like a four-way stop sign where people just wait for their turn to go. [ClarificationWolff has oversight of a number of ESPN studio shows, including The Jump; while he provides a lot of input into NBA Countdown, he is not the day-to-day production quarterback.]  

Furthermore, Countdown has been a revolving door in front of the camera and behind the scenes for over a decade now. Currently, the show is at its best on the rare occasions where Michael Wilbon is a guest analyst, and he brings a lot of energy.

In any event, Beadle is the face of the program. It’s on four days a week, and there’s going to be a greater magnifying glass on it as we approach and enter the playoffs. From a long-term perspective, it presents a challenge for Stephanie Druley, the ESPN executive who oversees the program (in December, Druley was promoted to run studio and event production alongside Norby Williamson and Countdown falls within her jurisdiction): If a buyout for Beadle is financially unfeasible in the next year or two, but the status quo is unsatisfactory, what can she even do about it?

One potential option down the road is to not eliminate Beadle, but to reduce her role. This is, ironically, what happened when ESPN decision-makers were not thrilled with Sage Steele in the spot; they brought in Beadle to split the job with Steele for the 2016-17 season, and then made Beadle the full-time host right before the playoffs. (Steele eventually landed at 6PM SportsCenter, and is tremendous in that spot.)

If ESPN were to go the route of splitting the hosting job, Rachel Nichols makes the most sense as the second host if they were able to work out the details. Another option would be to do a show hosted in New York, by Cassidy Hubbarth, who just signed a new deal with the network. A third option, who is much more of a longshot than the first two, would be for Jorge Sedano to be a host; he has been a guest-host on The Jump when Nichols is out, and is in ESPN’s NBA sideline reporter rotation.

If ESPN were to go the route of splitting the hosting job again, they should use it as an opportunity to experiment with a whole different type of program. Just subbing out Beadle would not be a magic elixir. The show does have news reporters (Woj, Brian Windhorst, etc.) contribute already, and this should continue, but there should also be consistent feature reporting. ESPN doesn’t really have a Marty Smith— a high-energy, likable personality who draws fun, original stories out of big-name college coaches and players and fanbases — for the NBA, but they should try to find/build one.

Other conversational formats, that include but are not exclusively limited to former athletes and coaches, should be tried. Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith are unique examples of opinionists who gel with former players because they’ve been television stars for so long now that their stature is elevated in the eyes of athletes, but ESPN should try plugging in other personalities as well.

If it is already too late for ESPN to make tweaks to Countdown this season, so be it. But, they have to do something before next season to make it a more enjoyable viewing experience. Splitting the hosting role is the option that makes the most sense.