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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Tuned In: ESPN Acknowledges Rodgers’s ‘Dumb’ Joke—But Feud ‘Will Go As Far As Kimmel Wants To Take It’

  • ESPN expects Rodgers to remain on the airways through at least the rest of the football season.
  • The battle continues between two of Disney and ESPN’s highest-paid talents.
Jimmy Kimmel
Syndication: USA TODAY

The bitter feud between Jimmy Kimmel and Aaron Rodgers is still raging—and the ball’s now squarely in Kimmel’s court, sources tell Front Office Sports. Kimmel’s threat of legal action against Rodgers, who linked the ABC star to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein during the four-time NFL MVP’s weekly segment on The Pat McAfee Show on Tuesday (“There’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, really hoping that doesn’t come out,” Rodgers said), has escalated the matter.

Asked about the situation on Friday, ESPN senior vice president of digital and studio production Mike Foss did not condone Rodgers’s comments, but he says he expects the Jets quarterback to remain on the show through the rest of the football season. “Pat announced today that he’s planning on Aaron joining the show Tuesday. Aaron made a dumb and factually inaccurate joke about Jimmy Kimmel,” Foss tells Front Office Sports on Friday. “The show will continue to evolve. It wouldn’t surprise me if Aaron’s role evolves with it.”

However, on-air Friday, McAfee expressed displeasure with how his show is treated within the walls of the company. “There are some people actively trying to sabotage us from within ESPN. More specifically, I believe Norby Williamson [ESPN’s executive editor and head of event and studio production] is the guy attempting to sabotage our program.”

ESPN released a statement on Saturday in support of the executive while championing the early success of McAfee, saying: “No one is more committed to and invested in ESPN’s success than Norby Williamson. At the same time, we are thrilled with the multi-platform success that we have seen from The Pat McAfee Show across ESPN. We will handle this matter internally and have no further comment.”

As FOS previously reported, Kimmel versus Rodgers has opened “a big can of worms” inside the Walt Disney Co., which owns both ABC and ESPN. Kimmel and McAfee are two of Disney’s highest-paid talents, making $15 million a year apiece. Rodgers’s “reckless” comments, which Kimmel posted on X (formerly known as Twitter), put Kimmel’s family “in danger.” If he hasn’t already done so, he could take his beef straight to Disney chairman Bob Iger and ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. Or, as he’s threatened, he could go after Rodgers in court. 

“This will go as far as Kimmel wants to take it,” warns one source. “[Kimmel] is the non-cartoon face of Disney. … Jimmy Kimmel Live! is five days a week, 52 weeks a year. He prints money for Disney. … He’s also a very sensitive guy.”

For its part, ESPN management is still very high on McAfee, slotting his weekday show in the key 12 noon to 3 p.m. time slot after Stephen A. Smith’s First Take and heavily featuring him on the iconic College GameDay. Launched on Sept. 7, McAfee’s eponymous show airs on ESPN, ESPN on YouTube, and ESPN+. With football season in full swing, the former NFL punter reached 298 million viewers across linear, digital, and social channels in December—up 23% from September. In the parlance of sports TV, he’s a valuable “innings eater” who generates an enormous amount of weekly content across ESPN platforms.

But McAfee’s closely-watched interviews with Rodgers now frequently go off the rails, as the star quarterback settles scores with Kimmel, COVID-19 vaccine advocates, and “Mr. Pfizer” Travis Kelce. “Instead of drawing attention for sports commentary, McAfee’s weekly conversations with Rodgers have given way to the type of headlines that might prompt envy from Alex Jones of InfoWars,” wrote CNN.

For Disney, McAfee is not in the same league as Kimmel. The comedian has hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC for 20 years. While CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert leads in total viewership, Kimmel is No. 1 with the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old audience. According to Variety, with ABC carrying more Monday Night Football this season, Kimmel had his most-viewed fall since 2020. He averaged 1.69 million viewers on ABC (live and same-day viewing) between Oct. 2 and Dec. 10. That trails only The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (1.88 million) in viewership.

On March 10, he’ll host ABC’s glitzy coverage of the Academy Awards for the fourth time. Kimmel earned an Emmy nomination for his Oscars hosting job last year. He previously hosted back-to-back Oscars on ABC in 2017 and 2018.

In other words, Kimmel’s the wrong Disney talent to tick off. Maybe that’s why McAfee apologized and acted so conciliatory this week. “I can see exactly why Jimmy Kimmel felt the way he felt, especially with his position,” McAfee said on his Wednesday show. “But I think Aaron was just trying to talk s—. Now, did it go too far? Jimmy Kimmel certainly said that was the case.”

Give it up for McAfee. Rather than reacting with his usual bombast, he tried to distance himself from the shrapnel flying around Disney and ESPN. And to be fair to Rodgers and McAfee, Kimmel has repeatedly mocked the QB’s anti-vax views on his show for years. 

In November 2021, the comic ripped the future Pro Football Hall of Famer for misleading others about his vaccination status. He also called Rodgers a “Karen” and made fun of his hairstyle. Cracked Kimmel: “Honestly, the only thing worse than not getting vaccinated when you’re in close proximity with other people is letting them think you’re vaccinated when you’re not. It’s basically the COVID equivalent of, ‘The condom fell off.‘ ” Many fans rallied around Rodgers this week, suggesting Kimmel is a thin-skinned crybaby who can dish it out but can’t take it.

On his podcast, Smith defended McAfee, arguing that he didn’t need to apologize for Rodgers’s comments. Still, there’s nothing Disney or ESPN hates more than “talent-on-talent crime,” Jemele Hill noted this week. It’s a cardinal sin that has gotten famous ESPN names like Bill Simmons and Tony Kornheiser into trouble over the years. Ultimately, Disney and ESPN brass will have to calculate whether Rodgers—and McAfee—are worth the headaches. 

“If the Walt Disney Co. has to choose who’s more important to them, they’re going to choose Jimmy Kimmel 365 days a year,” says the source. “This could be a catalyst for Kimmel to get something else he wants.”

Meanwhile: On Monday night, ESPN’s MegaCast coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship will feature McAfee and his crew playing a significant role. McAfee will headline Field Pass with The Pat McAfee Show on ESPN2.

McAfee, for his part, has a direct line to Pitaro, whom he calls “Paisano.” But Kimmel, one of the brightest stars in the Disney universes, still holds most of the cards. Magic Kingdom executives from Burbank to Bristol are waiting for his next move if there is one.  

“If Kimmel wants this to be a big deal, it will be a big deal. Or does he want to just make hay on Twitter?” asked another source.

The Wright Stuff

With Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe going head to head with their former on-air partner, Skip Bayless, much of the media attention has focused on the competition between Smith and Sharpe’s First Take on ESPN and Bayless’s retooled Undisputed on FS1. But coming up quickly on the outside is Nick Wright’s First Things First afternoon show at FS1. 

The weekday program featuring Wright, Chris Broussard, and Kevin Wildes posted its most-watched year in 2023, with viewership growing 82%. Initially launched as a morning program in 2017, the show recorded 49 of its 50 most-watched episodes in 2023. 

Happy New Year

With the College Football Playoff semifinals generating two insta-classics, Jan. 1 was the fourth most-watched day in ESPN’s nearly 45-year history. The four letters averaged 8.5 million viewers over 24 hours starting at 6 a.m.

Senior reporter A.J. Perez contributed to this report.

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