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Tuned In: Pat McAfee Is Channeling Howard Stern on ESPN

  • Defiant McAfee won’t back down from calling ESPN executive Norby Williamson a “rat.”
  • Instead, he spikes the ball by tweeting a picture of himself with ESPN No. 2.
Pat McAfee ESPN
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When I asked Mike Greenberg in May about Pat McAfee’s plans to link up with ESPN late this summer, the Get Up host compared McAfee to legendary shock jock Howard Stern. Greenberg couldn’t have been more spot-on. By publicly ripping ESPN executive Norby Williamson last week, McAfee took a page right out of Stern’s playbook for renegade media stars. 

Back in the 1980s, Stern was the rising thirtysomething afternoon star deriding his interfering boss at WNBC Radio as a cartoon villain he nicknamed Pig Vomit. On Friday, it was the 36-year-old McAfee attacking ESPN’s executive editor and head of event and studio production as a “rat” who he said was sabotaging his afternoon show. 

“There are some people actively trying to sabotage us from within ESPN,” McAfee said on his show. “More specifically, I believe Norby Williamson is the guy who is attempting to sabotage our program. I’m not 100% sure. That is just seemingly the only human that has information. Then somehow that information gets leaked, and it’s wrong, and it sets a narrative of what our show is. Are we just going to combat that from a rat every single time? I don’t know.”

It was a jaw-dropping moment. Outside of Stern, few media insiders could remember an on-air talent publicly calling out their boss with no repercussions. But then there was McAfee on Monday night, in the middle of ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship, acting like he didn’t have a care in the world. (ESPN previously issued a statement saying it would handle the dispute internally: “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.”)

McAfee’s attack seemed a bold but calculated risk. Corporate middlemen are always an easy target. Going after Williamson shifts the prevailing media narrative away from McAfee’s having enabled Aaron Rodgers to link Jimmy Kimmel to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (Kimmel addressed that matter on his show Monday night and dismissed McAfee’s suggestion that Rodgers was just talking trash.) Now there’s the more flattering scenario, where McAfee is seemingly the victim of a backstabbing suit in Bristol. With one move, McAfee generates greater interest and audience for his eponymous weekday show, which airs from 12 noon to 3 p.m. ET. 

As Stern’s fictionalized boss explained in the movie Private Parts, listeners tuned in because they wanted to find out: What will he say next? McAfee now has everybody asking the same question.

As one former ESPN talent told me: “Pat went scorched-earth yesterday because he knew there’s no real downside. If he gets fired, he gets a huge buyout, and another gig for him and his crew—in a week. If he doesn’t, he’s established that he can, mostly, do what he wants going forward.”

Meanwhile, the ex-NFL punter also fired a shot across the bows of Williamson and other ESPN executives who want to clamp down on The Pat McAfee Show. Remember: McAfee owns his show and licenses it to ESPN. The network has granted him unprecedented license to curse on the air. In short, he has creative freedom that other ESPN talents do not. 

Rather than apologizing for all this, McAfee spiked the ball this weekend by tweeting a picture of him and his boys yukking it up with Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of content. Magnus ranks No. 2 only to chairman Jimmy Pitaro. More to the point, he’s Williamson’s boss. “GREAT company and vibes in the suite,” McAfee wrote on X, alongside a photo of him smiling, an arm around Magnus. The in-your-face tweet was a “slap in the face to Norby Williamson,” said frequent ESPN critic Clay Travis of OutKick.

Meanwhile, McAfee turned himself into the patron saint of ex-ESPN talents like Jemele Hill, Sage Steele, and Michelle Beadle, who previously clashed with Williamson. Hill, for one, butted heads with Williamson during her run as co-anchor of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter alongside Michael Smith. Williamson canceled their more personality-driven show, dubbed The Six. Hill ended up taking a buyout in 2018. Smith took his a year later.

When Awful Announcing posted on X the video clip of McAfee going after Williamson, Hill tweeted: “I can relate.” On Monday, Hill appeared on The Dan Le Batard Show and marveled at an on-air talent daring to take a “flame-thrower” to the feared Williamson. McAfee calling his own shot, she suggested, could prove to be a “watershed moment” that empowers talent at the new ESPN. “This,” she warned, “is setting a precedent in real time.”

The old saying inside ESPN is that nobody is bigger than the four letters. The sports media giant has suspended talents like Hill, Steele, Le Batard, Stephen A. Smith, Bill Simmons, and Tony Kornheiser over the years, for various causes. Above all, though, the Worldwide Leader hates so-called “ESPN on ESPN crime.” Given the media giant’s disciplinary history, several sources I spoke to were shocked that ESPN hadn’t yanked McAfee off the air.

Perhaps it’s as simple as this: Teflon Pat gives a shrinking ESPN a chance to capture a younger audience, and McAfee is winning this power play, so far. Or: The mothership just moves slowly. Just because ESPN didn’t punish McAfee doesn’t mean he’s safe for the long term. 

Just ask Simmons, the network’s previous mega-star, who woke up one morning in 2015 to read in The New York Times that his contract would not be renewed. “It was f—-ing s—y,” Simmons told The Hollywood Reporter. Or Keith Olbermann, the famous SportsCenter anchor who cycled through several stints at ESPN. On X last week Olberman said he’d had “running, pitched battles with Norby off and on since 1992”—but he also said Williamson was “a pro with ethics.” McAfee and Rodgers, by comparison, he wrote, “are amateur clowns. … To paraphrase The Sweet Smell of Success: Your careers are dead, son.”

McAfee has a long history of not finishing his contracts—with FanDuel, DAZN, and other past employers. The clock may be already ticking on his ESPN career. Maybe that’s why he talked out of both sides of his mouth on his show Monday from Houston, where he appeared on College GameDay and led Field Pass coverage of the CFP National Championship on ESPN2. On the one hand, a defiant McAfee refused to take back a word that he’d said about an “old hag” like Williamson. He recalled how the ESPN exec made him wait 45 minutes before no-showing him at a meeting in 2018. “This guy has had zero respect for me,” he said. On the other hand, he effusively praised Magnus, Pitaro, and Disney boss Bob Iger—all conveniently above Williamson on Disney’s depth chart. He added that his show’s relationship with ESPN remains “strong.” His only regret, he said, was making Magnus look bad.

“A lot of people said I’m trying to get fired? No way,” McAfee said.

Given McAfee’s starring role with the WWE, I asked one industry source if they thought this was all a pro wrestling-like work, with McAfee playing the underdog babyface and Williamson the heel. The source didn’t think so—they believed it was just another example of McAfee being hypersensitive to criticism.

“I don’t think he’s pulling a Bill Simmons,” the source said. “I think he got fired up about something, and his crew said, ‘Go get ‘em!’ I don’t know if [McAfee] has [someone] in the room to protect him from himself, which all high-level talent need at some point.”

Who’s Norby Williamson

When McAfee versus Williamson exploded, many people were left asking: “Who is Norby?” But sports media insiders have long been familiar with the powerful producer and power broker, who’s been at ESPN since 1985.

Williamson has been one of ESPN’s most respected and accomplished executives for decades. In his current role he oversees all of ESPN’s football content, including the NFL, college football, XFL, and SEC Network. The 38-year veteran also oversees SportsCenter, ESPN Radio, and the network’s features and investigative journalism units. Le Batard called him ESPN’s “shadow president of content” on Monday. 

McAfee might act like a professional wrestler, but he’s spot-on about Williamson exemplifying old-school ESPN. A profile by Ben Strauss in The Washington Post several years back depicts him as a “mythical figure” inside Bristol and a true believer in SportsCenter as the beating heart of ESPN. Over the years, Williamson has frequently played the bad guy when it comes to talent and programming decisions. That hasn’t endeared him to former big names who were pushed out, bought out, or laid off. 

Despite multiple rounds of layoffs recently, Williamson has proven to be the ultimate corporate survivor. He’s been compared to the brilliant but scheming Littlefinger character on Game of Thrones

As one source says about Williamson: “Some people are very good at their job. Some people are a–holes. He’s both. But when it’s in that order, you can work at a place for decades.”

The Numbers Game

McAfee exploded after reading a column in the New York Post that questioned whether his lagging TV audiences made him worth his $15 million a year salary. “Since the inception of McAfee’s show on ESPN in the fall, Stephen A. Smith and First Take are handing McAfee a 583,000 viewer lead-in, and McAfee is maintaining just 302,000, which is a 48% drop,” wrote Andrew Marchand.

But ESPN argues that those linear TV numbers don’t tell the full story. The best way to judge his hybrid TV/YouTube show, they argue, is by combining his linear and digital numbers. According to ESPN, McAfee averaged 886,000 viewers per episode across ESPN, YouTube, and TikTok in December. If you just count his ESPN and YouTube live simulcasts, his show still averaged 735,000 viewers. That’s up 29% from the first month of his program in December. 

So, has his show been a success for ESPN? I’d say yes. But it also hasn’t been the blockbuster they thought it would be. The question is whether McAfee can keep up the momentum during the football offseason—especially if he loses access to Rodgers, who is expected to address his Kimmel comments during his weekly appearance with McAfee on Tuesday. Whatever happens next, the ESPN-McAfee soap opera is only beginning. Stay tuned.

Mike Drops

NBC Sports will show a record three playoff games during the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend, including the league’s first exclusive live-streamed playoff game on Peacock. Mike Tirico, Jason Garrett, and Kaylee Hartung will call Peacock’s coverage of the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Miami Dolphins. … CBS Sports says that it and sister networks will combine for weeklong coverage from Las Vegas leading up to the telecast of Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 8. The various CBS shows will share four different sets, with the Fountains of Bellagio as a backdrop. …Former NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya will fill in as the guest host of OutKick Don’t @ Me with Dan Dakich on Tuesday through Friday. Her guests are scheduled to include Steele, David Pollack, Will Cain, and the wrestler Tyrus.

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