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Friday, March 1, 2024

Six Predictions for Sports Media in 2024

  • Ahead of the new year, we took a stab at the biggest storylines in one of the most unpredictable businesses.
  • A record deal for Stephen A. Smith, Tom Brady’s next career, ESPN’s future moves, and more.
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The last time we tried our hand at sports media predictions, we correctly nailed down several moves in the industry for the back half of 2023.

We were right about Shannon Sharpe joining Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take after six years as Skip Bayless’s sparring partner at FS1’s Undisputed. We also called Smith grooming Sharpe as his successor if he leaves for late-night TV or entertainment. And when Jeff Van Gundy got the ax, it was a layup to predict Doris Burke would succeed him on ESPN’s No. 1 NBA announcing team.

After a year in media largely defined by layoffs and talent reshuffling, we’re getting the crystal ball back out. 

Here are our predictions for 2024:  

Stephen A. Smith Will Become a $20 Million Man 

As the face and voice of ESPN, Smith for a long time was a good soldier, keeping silent while new hires like Troy Aikman ($18 million a year), Pat McAfee ($16 million), and Joe Buck ($15 million) surpass his annual compensation figure ($12 million). But his patience is coming to an end.

The 56-year-old Smith made it clear during an interview with Clay Travis of Outkick that he wants to be the highest-paid talent at ESPN. If chairman Jimmy Pitaro doesn’t come through, Smith seems ready to go the independent route pioneered by McAfee, with his own podcast and production company.

Smith’s current contract expires in 18 months. With his surging First Take dominating rival Skip Bayless’s Undisputed in the morning TV show wars, look for ESPN to lock up Smith with a long-term deal that pays him a record $20 million a year.

The NBA Will Double Its Media Partners

Once the NBA’s exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and TNT expires in mid-April, it’s anybody’s ballgame. Look for the league to retain both as primary television partners, and for ESPN’s sister broadcast network, ABC, to keep the NBA Finals. However, the NBA will add two more media rights partners. 

Expect a newcomer in the form of deep-pocketed Amazon Prime to pick off a weekday streaming-only package and create the NBA equivalent of Thursday Night Football. And for those of us who fondly remember NBC’s Sports’ “Roundball Rock” era from 1990-2002, don’t be surprised if the league’s ex-media partner elbows its way back into the rotation. 

Tom Brady Will Finally Kick Off His Broadcasting Career

After back-and-forth rumors of yet another comeback, Brady will finally take over as Fox Sports’ No. 1 NFL game analyst and call Super Bowl LIX in February 2025. But questions will continue to swirl over whether the seven-time Super Bowl winner will actually complete his record-breaking 10-year, $375 million deal with the network. 

Fox has been on pins and needles ever since Brady announced a gap year before starting his career in the booth. At this point, Fox brass would be happy to get a season or two out of the 46-year-old GOAT before he sails off into the ranks of NFL owners, sources tell FOS

The big question for Fox is whether current No. 1 analyst Greg Olsen will be happy moving back into the No. 2 job.

ESPN Will Make a Run at Colin Cowherd

The once-dominant ESPN Radio will turn to a familiar face for salvation: Colin Cowherd. The host of The Herd with Colin Cowherd has a Fox contract that expires in early 2025. The former network star would instantly solve ESPN Radio’s problems. His TV show could also slide up and down a daily schedule alongside Smith, McAfee, and Mike Greenberg.

But would the feeling be mutual? The 59-year-old’s startup media company, The Volume, is already being circled by private equity firms. Of course, Cowherd could sell all or part of his fast-growing network, like Bill Simmons did in offloading The Ringer to Spotify for $200 million.

“The monster negotiation coming up for Fox is Colin,” one source tells Front Office Sports. “His ratings are at an all-time high. And he causes zero issues—unlike Skip Bayless.”

The NBA Will Take a Stake in ESPN  

Ever since Disney chairman Bob Iger revealed in July he was open to finding minority investors and strategic partners for ESPN, talks have heated up between Disney and all four major American sports leagues, according to CNBC.

Expect Disney and the NBA to join forces after ESPN reups as the Association’s main TV partner. ESPN wants to go direct-to-consumer by 2025, a goal much more feasible with the NBA as a business partner. Meanwhile, ESPN’s expertise would boost the quality of NBA TV and improve the league app.  

Netflix Will Remain on the Fence

Any Netflix subscribers hoping to segue from a miniseries binge to a live game will be disappointed by our final prediction: The streaming giant will continue to be more of a tease than a major player in the sports arena.

The streamer will roll out more sports documentaries and occasional made-for-TV events, but it won’t match the billions of dollars Apple (MLS) and Amazon (NFL) have spent on live-game packages.

Early last year, co-CEO Ted Sarandos said Netflix was still figuring out how to bid on expensive live sports rights in a way that made fiscal sense. “We’re not anti-sports; we’re pro-profits.”

Bob Thompson, the ex-Fox Sports executive, agrees the timing isn’t ripe yet for the media giant. “Netflix will not enter sports in a major way,” he tells Front Office Sports.

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