Will ESPN's Massive Bet on Pat McAfee Pay Off?
By Liam McKeone
On Tuesday, the news broke that Pat McAfee would have a new home this fall. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post was first to report that McAfee was going to ESPN in a massive multimillion dollar agreement that will bring the Pat McAfee Show to the Worldwide Leader's airwaves. This presumably signals the end of McAfee's $120 million deal with FanDuel, and Marchand reports his new agreement with ESPN will be worth north of $10 million per year.
It is a pretty significant development in the sports media space and both sides seem quite pleased. Here's what Jimmy Pitaro had to say in a press release following the breaking news:
“Pat is a proven talent. He and his team have built The Pat McAfee Show into one of the most engaging programs in sports and all of media,” said ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro. “It’s a destination for athlete interviews and breaking news, and the centerpiece of a growing community of sports fans. We’re honored to bring Pat and the show to ESPN through a multifaceted, multiplatform approach.”
And McAfee, of course, had his own announcement on his eponymous show.
The Pat McAfee Show will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN+ along with its usual home on YouTube. Where it will be slotted has yet to be announced but that doesn't matter as much as the big picture. ESPN is giving McAfee and everything that comes with him an enormous amount of money. It is a significant leap of faith taken by Pitaro and the other heads at the network to give that much money to an unconventional personality.
A risky bet. As you saw above McAfee promised to stop swearing so much now that he'll be working for Disney, but the gruff everyman persona of his is the draw for a lot of his audience. I'm not saying his show will draw fewer viewers just because he's no longer cursing up a storm but there will be a fine line to walk for ESPN between toning down McAfee enough that he is appealing to all ages, but not to the point where his loyal following starts to fade because he changed too much. As it stands that loyal following will now bring a couple hundred thousand viewers per day to ESPN's YouTube channel, but that can't be all ESPN paid for.
What else did the network pay for? They clearly see McAfee as some sort of heir apparent on College GameDay, and with good reason. His borderline psychotic energy plays perfectly with the vibe of the show and college football at large. He's an affable goofball without being too over the top and he certainly knows his stuff football-wise. McAfee's spot is set in stone after this.
But... that's kind of it in terms of the tangibles, which is why the deal is a risk. In theory McAfee's presence on weekly daytime television could boost ratings, but it is hard to imagine his viewers making a big dent considering most will likely stick with YouTube viewership (which are still important numbers but not as juicy as Nielsen ratings). He could draw a younger crowd, which companies like ESPN are constantly trying to do as the way younger generations consume sports content changes. But that's no guarantee.
Moreover, the biggest surprise of the Pat McAfee Show (and what feels like the primary reason he blew up to the extent that he has) is that McAfee was able to create his own news by landing notable names and getting them to loosen up in a way we rarely see in media. As a former player, McAfee has the respect of his interview subjects, and the Dan Patrick-esque vibe of his whole setup puts everyone at ease. That was true before his regular Tuesday interviews with Aaron Rodgers started. Then Rodgers blew everything up by using McAfee as his preferred platform to speak his mind on any of the ridiculous circumstances he was involved in.
McAfee will certainly be able to land the same interviews now that he's at ESPN and it may even open the door to bigger names who are more comfortable with legacy media. But will he be able to ensure they stay loose and honest now that he's on cable television? And, more importantly, will the lack of Rodgers drama hamper McAfee's ability to create news? He did a great job curating that relationship, but Rodgers got out of Green Bay as desired and doesn't have to split hairs on questions about his vaccine status anymore. Drama follows the MVP quarterback closely, but the combination of his trade request and the vaccine debacle felt like a perfect storm to catapult the Pat McAfee Show into the public consciousness. It does not seem likely to happen again.
To be clear, none of this means it is a bad deal. McAfee will be around on the other ESPN television properties acting as a shot of human espresso. His "progrum" is entertaining and boasts the sort of bizarre, inside-baseball jargon that all the best radio shows have. He could very well be at the center of ESPN's entertainment universe on the sports side for years to come.
There are questions, though. And even ignoring those questions, it's just a lot of money to fork over to a guy who is not well-known by the mainstream audience. That it comes after the first round of layoffs at the company with two more to come, will certainly put the deal into the spotlight. McAfee's contract will reportedly be worth $10 million per year or more. That's about what Stephen A. Smith brings home annually, and just about every sports fan knows who Stephen A. Smith is. If McAfee can drive himself to that level of notoriety with the new platform granted by ESPN, that would be tremendous for him and the network.
Doing that will be extraordinarily difficult. There aren't many Stephen A. Smiths in the sports media world. As things stand McAfee sits below that level of stardom. ESPN clearly believes he can take that next step and become recognizable to everybody on the sports fan spectrum. That's the bet -- and it's a big one.