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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Q&A: Jason Whitlock Opens Up About Leaving Fox Sports

  • In first public comments since leaving Fox, Whitlock says FS1 ‘prioritized’ Skip Bayless’ ‘Undisputed’ show over his ‘Speak For Yourself.’
  • Whitlock said he left after Fox after the company offered him a two-year contract extension at no raise.
Photo Credit: Fox Sports

Love him or hate him, Jason Whitlock has developed into one of the most polarizing sports personalities in America.

During his career, he’s worked twice for both Fox Sports and ESPN, appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” been hired and fired as editor of ESPN’s “The Undefeated” website on sports, race and culture, and battled publicly with everyone from ESPN and Deadspin to athletes, coaches and columnists.

The 53-year old Whitlock, is now the former co-host of FS1’s weekday “Speak For Yourself” studio show, which he left last week after his contract expired. He joined FS1 in 2016. The news was first reported by Outkick the Coverage.

Fox confirmed May 29 was Whitlock’s last day with the company. “We thank Jason for all of his hard work and dedication to the network, and we wish him the best in future endeavors,” spokesman Andrew Fegyveresi said.

In his first public comments since his departure, Whitlock opened up to Front Office Sports about his future plans, being ignored in favor of Skip Bayless, and what’s next in his career.

Front Office Sports: Why are you leaving Fox Sports? 

Jason Whitlock: Because I believe in myself and I believe the opportunities in front of me are better than staying at FS1. I had a great, rewarding experience for the last four years hosting and creating the ‘SFY’ show that exists today. The last two years in particular were very rewarding. Charlie Dixon, the head of studio programming, bought into my vision and allowed me to surround myself with Marcellus Wiley, Darnell Smith, and Uncle Jimmy.

I’ve established professional relationships that will last the rest of my working career. I’m the only person in the world who could have a thoughtful, meaningful, and enjoyable conversation with Colin Cowherd and Uncle Jimmy. This second go-round at Fox Sports put me in position to take risks and further capitalize on my brand. By nature, I’m a home-run hitter. It’s time to take another swing for the fences. 

FOS: Did Fox offer you a contract extension? If so, what was their offer?  

JW: They offered me a two-year extension to continue hosting the show at the same pay. Not a bad offer considering the times we live in. 

FOS: Did the pandemic impact your negotiations?  We’re hearing sports media companies are either cutting pay – or keeping salaries flat?  

JW: I suspect the pandemic impacted the negotiations. The discussions before the pandemic were completely different from the discussions after the pandemic. But the pandemic was never argued to me as a justification for the offer. At 53, it’s go-time. I’m in my prime. And my unifying message and point of view are more valuable in this era of social-media-driven racial polarization. People want to know how we can all get along. I’m the only person in sports media offering a plausible pathway forward. 

FOS: How is your relationship with ‘SFY’ co-host Marcellus Wiley? Will the show survive?  

JW: My relationship with Marcellus is good. Unchanged. I do expect the show to survive. There are a lot of talented and committed people working on the show. Kyle Libby, the coordinating producer, will steer the show in a good direction. He has a great team that believes in him. Charlie Dixon will continue to support the show and help Kyle steer the show in a positive direction. I think we developed some great complementary panelists in Jim Jackson, LaVar Arrington, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Ric Bucher, Bucky Brooks, Mark Schlereth, etc. I believe the pieces are in place for the show to massage itself and sustain its traction. 

FOS: You wrote most of the show. How will [the show] change without your voice? 

JW: My voice is fearless and unconcerned with the reaction of social media. That’s a difficult lane to travel in on a daily basis. I’m also a journalist. I think the show will have a different tone, a lighter tone, built around fun. It might be more ‘SportsNation’ than Bill Maher.  

FOS: Do you think your bosses at Fox did enough to support you, your show? 

JW: I think all talent feels they need more support. I bet Denzel Washington and George Clooney think their movies need more marketing. When you are as stunningly attractive as Denzel, Clooney, and myself, you tend to be needy. It’s the downside of good looks. More seriously, [the people who work on SFY] wanted more promotional and marketing support. I think the network prioritized getting eyeballs on ‘Undisputed’ and getting a return on the investment in Skip Bayless. You make a big bet, you do whatever is necessary to cash that ticket. 

FOS: What did audience data show on ‘SFY’ vs. other FS1 shows?

JW: We made incredible progress over the last nine months, particularly the six months before the corona pandemic. During the NFL season [from 9/9/19 through 2/28/20] our year-over-year growth was +36%. ‘The Herd’ was +17%, ‘Undisputed’ was roughly +6% and ‘First Things First’ was +13%. During this timeframe, ‘SFY’ went from averaging 91,000 viewers to 124,000. The coronavirus hurt all of us in the last three months. But even still, since the kickoff of the NFL season [9/9/19] through May 22, 2020, ‘SFY’ grew +23%, ‘The Herd’ +7%, ‘Undisputed’ dropped -2.9% and ‘First Things First’ dropped -2.3%. ‘SFY’ was finding and growing an audience organically with bare minimum promotional support.   

FOS: Before rejoining Fox in 2015, you were one of the top columnists at ESPN.com. But FoxSports.com didn’t have you write for their site. Instead, you wrote for The Wall Street Journal, a News Corp. sister company. Why?  

JW: Initially Fox set up a blog for me to write, j.school. In my first go-round at Fox Sports in 2008, I wrote a very popular column for FoxSports.com. By the time I returned in 2015, social media, Twitter in particular, had dramatically changed the perception of columnists like me. It became much more difficult and problematic to have middle-of-the-road, traditional views. Objectivity had no value. Independent thought lost value. Sports journalism became agenda-driven. 

Especially for the people who flocked to the lane I created, the lane of blending sports commentary with social commentary. Everything became agenda-driven. There was and is major blowback for writing things that don’t stick to the left-wing agenda. I don’t think Jamie Horowitz, the former head of FS1 studio programming, had an interest in dealing with that blowback. Few people do. I eventually found an editor at ‘The Wall Street Journal; willing to publish my point of view.   

FOS: You’ve worked for ESPN twice. Are you interested in a third go-round? 

JW: I talked with ESPN. I like the direction ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro is taking ESPN. But the pandemic submarined those discussions. 

FOS: Some media personalities like Bill Simmons, Dave Portnoy, and Joe Rogan have found fame and fortune on their own. The New York Post reported you might launch a direct-to-consumer business. So what are you going to do next?

JW: I think it’s obvious that Simmons, Portnoy, Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Adam Carolla have been well ahead of the curve. I respectfully envy and appreciate their balls and what they’ve accomplished. The people making a major impact in the media space the last decade have done it independently. They’ve leveraged their audience into platforms they control. That’s what I want to do. I’m late. But better late than never.

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