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With ESPN At Crossroads, Here Are Three Predictions

  • NFL, NBA departments hit hard by layoffs at ESPN.
  • Executives have decisions to make in staffing critical shows for the network.
Doris Burke, Mina Kimes and Shannon Sharpe
Kirby Lee + Dale Zanine -USA TODAY Sports; Al Powers-ESPN Images
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The brutal layoffs that claimed 20 ESPN talents, including top NBA game analyst Jeff Van Gundy and Suzy Kolber and Steve Young of “Monday Night Countdown,” marked the darkest day for the the network’s talent team in years.

But once the smoke clears, ESPN management must make some hard decisions on its NFL and NBA programming, especially with parent Disney trying to protect its 20-year partnership with the NBA in upcoming rights negotiations.

In the wake of Bloody Friday, here are three ESPN predictions: 

No. 1: Doris Burke Succeeds Van Gundy

ESPN likes to think of itself as a progressive, cutting-edge company. They could make sports TV history by naming Burke the first female analyst to call the NBA Finals with the returning duo of Mike Breen and Mark Jackson.

It’s not that hard of a jump. The Hall of Fame broadcaster has called the NBA Finals on radio since 2020. Before the 2017-2018 season, she was named the first woman to serve as an NBA game analyst.

On the other hand, ESPN/ABC’s three-person broadcast booth of Van Gundy, Jackson, and Breen is an anomaly in an industry where two-person booths are more common. So they could reduce their No. 1 team to just Jackson and Breen. 

Don’t count out JJ Redick. He’s had a meteoric rise at ESPN. If he’s fearless enough to challenge Stephen A. Smith on “First Take,” he could ask for the moon – and get it.

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No. 2: Mina Kimes succeeds Kolber on “Monday Night Countdown.”

ESPN management is extremely high on the former print journalist who was named an NFL analyst in 2020. 

With her contract expiring soon, Kimes will be pursued by Dan Le Batard’s Meadowlark Media and Bill Simmons’ The Ringer. 

Handing her the keys to “Monday Night Countdown” could seal a new long-term deal with ESPN – especially with the network’s first two Super Bowls on the horizon.

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If not Kimes, then “NFL Live” host Laura Rutledge emerges as a natural successor to Kolber. 

But Rutledge might be harder to replace on the weekday NFL studio show. Which is why I think Kimes gets the job.

No. 3: Shannon Sharpe Joins ESPN.

Skip Bayless’ former debate partner has been quiet since leaving FS1’s “Undisputed.” 

After losing Pat McAfee to ESPN, FanDuel has engaged in early talks with Sharpe. And the sports betting giant has money to burn after writing McAfee’s $30 million a year contract off the books. 

But here’s why Sharpe moving to ESPN makes more sense. 

He loves the spotlight. The three-time Super Bowl winner could play an outsized role as Young’s successor on “Monday Night Countdown.” 

He could also join Stephen A. Smith’s rotating list of debaters on “First Take,” along with Redick, Chris “Mad Dog Russo,” and Michael Irvin (the former Dallas Cowboys star has been benched by both NFL Network and ESPN since a controversial incident with a female hotel employee during Super Bowl week). 

That could position Sharpe as Smith’s successor if and when he decides to leave “First Take” for entertainment, acting, or politics.

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Think about it. Both Smith and McAfee have publicly called on Sharpe to join them at ESPN. That could have been a coincidence. Or a tell.

It would be the ultimate revenge on his old FS1 bosses if Sharpe took over “First Take” — then proceeded to trounce their golden boy Bayless in the ratings. 

Because right now, Bayless is laughing his way to the bank. Friday’s layoff of debate-ready talents like Keyshawn Johnson, Max Kellerman, and Jalen Rose will make his task of finding Sharpe’s replacement a lot easier.

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