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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Why Norby Williamson Is Out After 40 Years at ESPN

  • Williamson clashed with No. 2 executive Burke Magnus.
  • He also tangled with Pat McAfee, who called him a ‘rat.’
ESPN microphone on press table
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The saying around ESPN was that if an atom bomb went off in Bristol, Conn., only cockroaches and Norby Williamson would survive. The ultimate survivor’s nearly 40-year run at the four letters came to an end Friday. According to an internal memo sent by president of content Burke Magnus and reviewed by Front Office Sports, it was the last day for Williamson, ESPN’s executive editor and head of event and studio production. 

During his four-decade run at ESPN, Williamson survived multiple CEOs, layoffs, and management shake-ups.  By the end, he ranked as the No. 4 or No. 5 executive at the company, overseeing the NFL, college football, Major League Baseball, the NHL, and SportsCenter.

Only a few months ago, new ESPN hire Pat McAfee publicly called Williamson a “rat” who was trying to “sabotage” his show. A decade ago, McAfee would have been suspended, or fired, for calling out a top ESPN executive. But there was no punishment. From that point on, the red light was blinking on Williamson’s long career at ESPN, say sources inside and outside of the network with direct knowledge of the change.

It’s easy to point the finger at McAfee for Williamson’s abrupt departure. But before the McAfee blowup, there were frequent rumors that Williamson, who started at ESPN in 1985, was going to retire. The real reason for his departure, say sources, was a “disconnect” between him and his direct boss, Magnus. Under previous ESPN bosses John Skipper and Connor Schell, Williamson was free to run his fiefdom as he saw fit. Magnus, on the other hand, was promoted above Williamson a year ago. He’s been more hands-on in overseeing content. That led to a clash of personalities between the two, who are both strong-willed.

Over the years, Williamson got perhaps the worst press coverage of any ESPN executive, influenced by talent and agents who loathed him. But that was due somewhat to his blunt style and his willingness to fire talent and dump struggling shows. He was particularly proprietary about SportsCenter, viewing it as the heart and soul of ESPN. That led to clashes with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith over their reimagined 6 p.m. SportsCenter, The Six, from 2017 to ’18. Williamson disliked the show, and both Hill and Smith ended up leaving ESPN. A victorious Williamson quickly changed the 6 p.m. SportsCenter back to its more traditional format.

“Norby was always the bearer of bad news—and people hated him for it,” said one former ESPNer. “But he also had to clean up a lot of messes, some of which were not his own.”

With tension growing between Magnus and Williamson, the public rift with McAfee finally put the ultimate survivor into a fight he couldn’t win. In his short time with ESPN, McAfee has grown tight with Magnus, chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Disney chairman Bob Iger. With football season over, Magnus decided to pull the trigger and look for an executive who shared his vision.

In his memo, Burke said he will lead a search inside and outside ESPN for an executive or executives to fill Williamson’s many roles. Williamson himself sounded a hopeful note as he said goodbye to his colleagues. “I’d like to think we left our great company in a far better place than we found it.”

The New York Post was first to report Williamson’s departure Friday. The paper said Williamson’s contract was supposed to run through 2027 after ESPN televises its first Super Bowl. As former ESPNer Keith Olbermann tweeted Friday: “ESPN and Norby Williamson—who has made the place run for 40 years—part ways and 45 minutes later there’s an earthquake felt throughout the Northeast.”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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