Former NFL punter and YouTube sensation Pat McAfee joins ESPN this week as an on-air personality, with the debut of his self-titled, “The Pat McAfee Show.” There’s nothing particularly unusual about a former football player joining the all-sports all-the-time cable network as an analyst.
But McAfee’s digital media pedigree and his creator-coded personal style nonetheless reinforce the central importance of online platforms to developing an audience in 2023, particularly if you’re aiming for Gen Z viewers born post-Macarena.
A New Era for ESPN
ESPN’s parent company Disney is hard at work reinventing the sports cable network for the streaming era. There’s the ESPN+ streaming service, which launched in April 2018, of course. But the new service feels more like a supplement to the main channel—it’s essentially ESPN Abridged—and its approach is already a bit outdated. (Its newsy doppelganger, CNN+, only lasted weeks before shutting down after its 2022 launch.)
Disney’s new plans focus on making the online ESPN less a final destination than a hub, pointing viewers to all the live sports and analysis content that’s happening across every broadcaster and streaming service.
But just linking out to Golf Network streams alone isn’t going to maintain ESPN’s brand as the must-stop shop for all things sports. They’re going to need their own line-up of personalities and analysis, people you can only hear from by watching ESPN originals.
Hence making new hires like McAfee, who has built an audience of more than 2 million YouTube subscribers through his unfiltered commentary. It’s the kind of style that’s familiar to anyone who watches a lot of sports content on the internet, which immediately brings to mind the aggressive and occasionally even trollish tone of something like social media blog titan Barstool Sports.
In fact, McAfee himself is a Barstool veteran. After retiring from the NFL in 2016, he joined Barstool as a commentator before ultimately exiting for online gambling and fantasy sports hub FanDuel in 2018.
While saying outrageous things for a laugh has endeared McAfee to a large internet audience, this same tendency could get him in trouble once he makes the jump to television. It was on McAfee’s show last year that NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers got himself into hot water by declaring that he was unvaccinated, and opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine more generally.
Just a few weeks ago, McAfee also got into trouble on Twitter/X for making a joke about former Team USA Gymnastics doctor and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, for which he later offered the kind of self-pitying, half-hearted non-apology apology that only a YouTube veteran could issue. “I do apologize if some people took that in a different way and then spun it in their own narrative,” McAfee offered on his show.
Put $1 in the Swear Jar
This voice is unconventional for a major TV network like ESPN, which has content standards of its own as well as sponsors to consider. The network and Pat McAfee will have to figure out some kind of balance between keeping things family-friendly for a Disney-owned cable channel while remaining authentic to the host’s established voice and sensibility.
Lean too far in one direction, and you anger sponsors (though ESPN says, so far, advertiser demand for McAfee’s new show is high). But play things too safe, and you alienate McAfee’s fans, who are tuning in to hear what he really thinks, not censored commentary that has been deemed TV-appropriate by the suits in charge.
The first major compromise centered around the use of profanity, which McAfee uses all the time on YouTube but will try to limit on ESPN broadcasts. But rather than just never swearing at all, he’ll just do his best to keep a lid on it and donate to a charitable “swear jar” when he lets one rip. ESPN shows will run on a slight delay that allows them to censor F-bombs. Meanwhile, a YouTube simulcast will play uncensored, and will also feature an extra hour of content that’s exclusive to the web.
Discussing his style with the Wall Street Journal, Pat McAfee noted that his show represents a break from the familiar ESPN approach, in which hosts and guests frequently debated the hot issues in sports. Rather than centering his show on arguments, which can lead to hostility and division, McAfee claims that he wants to “celebrate people that are just great,” and avoid creating a “nitpick fest.”
It’s not only McAfee’s sometimes outrageous perspective and liberal use of the F-word that has drawn some criticism. His ESPN deal, a five-year agreement with a rumored value of over $85 million, also raised some eyebrows across the internet, particularly as it required the host to walk out of his ongoing contract with FanDuel. McAfee explained to the New York Post that the number covers not just his personal salary, but also pays for his team and the production of the show itself. For their roughly $17 million per year, ESPN will receive 230 fully produced episodes.
Kids Watch the Darndest Things
Beyond just getting a fully-produced show, Disney is really buying a young audience that’s hungry for sports content. A generation ago, fans had far fewer options for sports-related media. There were talk radio shows, of course, on which hosts and a line-up of guests or callers would argue about teams and players, and then cable shows like “Pardon the Interruption” that essentially replicated this format for television.
In 2023, all of these same options exist, but they’re joined by a multitude of new approaches. There are podcasts on which comedians discuss the week’s sports highlights, blogs picking apart all the on and off-field minutiae, and supplemental audio feeds that line up with sports broadcasts to provide different perspectives on the games. Disney has started broadcasting and streaming live hockey games with cartoons and animated backdrops laid on top of the live streams, so you can watch the Capitals and Rangers face off as characters from “Big City Greens.”
Imagine trying to wade into all this as a middle-aged ESPN executive. New formats, new personalities, and an entire sea change in how people want to talk about sports. Far easier to find someone who has already built a successful, organic audience online, and then pay them a ton of money to transport it over to your platform, than try to replicate their success yourself.
Still, this is easier said than done, and we’ve seen dozens of unsuccessful attempts by Hollywood veterans to co-opt and exploit authentic online voices. Whether ESPN manages to strike just the right balance remains to be seen.
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