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Imagining a Wild Game of ESPN Musical Chairs

Michelle Beadle getting replaced by a combination of Rachel Nichols, Maria Taylor, and Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s NBA studio coverage creates the potential for a wild game of musical chairs at the Mothership. In thinking about it, our imaginations have run rampant about this carousel — here’s one way we believe would be optimal.

Maria Taylor is, as my colleague Bobby Burack tweeted earlier, rumored to be hosting Friday editions of NBA Countdown as well as on Sundays after football season (the plan is for Rachel Nichols to be on-site on ABC on Saturdays).

While as we see with Kirk Herbstreit nothing is impossible if private jets are involved, it’d otherwise be a logistical challenge for Taylor to get from Countdown to College Gameday and even the Saturday night showcase game. A lot of these big college towns — Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Oxford, Clemson, Madison, Iowa City, Lincoln, Norman, for example — don’t have a ton of direct flights. If Taylor does not continue on her college football package, this opens a chair for …

Sam Ponder. Presuming the next iteration of NBA Countdown is improved, the last glaring content issue Jimmy Pitaro faces after replacing John Skipper as ESPN President is NFL Countdown. Ponder, in my opinion, has not as of yet demonstrated the ability to be a top-level studio host, and the chemistry on the show has been stilted.

To be fair, this is not all her fault. Charles Woodson is one of my favorite football players of all time, but he was a disappointment as a studio analyst and has since been replaced by Tedy Bruschi. Neither Rex Ryan nor Matt Hasselbeck have been superstars, and Randy Moss is pretty good but there’s an underlying sense he has an extra gear he’s not tapping into.

But some people are just better fits for college football than the NFL. This was the case with Sean McDonough, who is phenomenal on college telecasts but didn’t seem to enjoy the NFL nearly as much. When he went back to college, there was a sense of joy again. It’s probably too late for any drastic changes in this regard this season, but Ponder could similarly benefit from returning to Gameday and sidelines for the biggest games. Which would leave NFL Sunday Countdown open for…

Mike Greenberg. Since Michelle Beadle exited Get Up, the program has a new lease on life. Viewers are responding as its ratings are rising — in June, for example, they were up 21 percent year-over-year. At the heart of it is Greeny hosting ensembles of reporters and former players and coaches in a way that seamlessly combines the timing with the on-screen visuals with engaging conversation.

Once again, it’s probably too late in the process at this point to slide Ponder back to her former college football role and Greeny over to Countdown, but if he were to do four days a week of Get Up and pick up NFL studio hosting duties it could really give Sunday mornings a shot in the arm.

Stephen A. Smith is, as we reported, in line to be on ESPN’s NBA studio coverage on Wednesdays. The constant feedback we got from that news is that he’s doing too much. Between First Take and his daily radio show that is simulcast on ESPNEWS, he is on-air for four hours a day, and that’s before you get to his hits on Get UpSportsCenter, and elsewhere.

It’s a tricky spot because his radio ratings are supposedly strong. As a side note, it’s really tough for an outsider to truly know radio ratings because it’s a combination of hundreds of local affiliates, the ones of which that are in big cities are invariably losing to local talk. Therefore, the element of success is trying to keep that gap as narrow as possible. In any event, word on the street is his are good right now.

But there just aren’t enough hours in the day for Smith to keep this up. He misses the show more regularly than virtually any other prominent national radio hosts miss theirs, and when he’s there it’s eating up his time and energy resources that are ultimately — if indirectly —  more valuable to the company elsewhere. But on the other hand, unlike most TV this is a non-regimented platform that gives him more freedom of expression.

The solution here, in my opinion, would be to give Stephen A. a digital show that airs whenever he feels like it. If there’s a big story that he wants to weigh in on, he hops in the lab and speaks into a camera about it. Then it can air on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and/or in podcast form. If he really wants to, he could even take callers. Here, he’d get the outlet to talk uninterrupted, but he doesn’t have to be chained to the schedule of it being two hours a day. Which opens up the door for…

Dan Patrick to return! It’s ESPN’s 40th anniversary, and Dan Patrick is obviously a big part of the network’s history. He is currently under contract with AT&T/DirecTV, but it’s unclear if there’s a longterm plan for him there. From the outside, there seemed to be a lot more momentum for their partnership a year or two ago, but when the Justice Department slowed down their acquisition of Time Warner (and thus Turner Sports), so too have any grander plans. The DP Show does air on BR Live, so it isn’t like they’re doing nothing with it. Since this is all in our imaginations anyway, let’s envision Disney and AT&T working out a deal for Dan and the Danettes.

The DP Show was a staple of ESPN Radio for years, and it can deliver the meat-and-potatoes sports talk that listeners want to hear in their cars. Back in the broader fold at ESPN, Dan Patrick could fit into some other roles too, like occasional SportsCenter reunions with Keith Olbermann or, and this is just a random idea, big event SportsCenter’s on the road with Sage Steele. He’s been on the Super Bowl, Olympics, and NBA Finals broadcasts in his career and he’s a welcome face.

I get how one could make an argument against Dan Patrick replacing Stephen A. Smith on the radio in this general sense: ESPN has a bench full of people just waiting to seize opportunities, and you don’t want to get stuck in a position similar to WWE where you have to keep going into the past to compensate for new stars not being the same draw. Nevertheless, my opinion is that established voices are optimal for maximizing revenue on terrestrial radio, as it experiences listenership attrition towards digital but remains high cashflow.

If you’re ESPN, there’s a strong argument to be made for investing in up-and-comers on digital rather than traditional radio. For example, what they are doing with Cassidy Hubbarth and Hoop Streams — creating fun, loose conversation as bumper programming for big events they are airing, and capitalizing on social media reach — should be an aspirational model.

Chris Berman doesn’t really fit into any of the musical chairs here, unless he’d somehow be willing to step back into Sunday NFL Countdown, but while we’re here I just need to say that I want to see more of him. I get that this would be another example of ESPN harkening back to its past and I also get that he’s polarizing online. However, it feels so good when he reads highlights that I wish it happened more often.

Any way that ESPN can get more out of Berman than the Monday features and NFL championship game highlights that he’s been doing would be a big win for them.