ESPN has become the sports network equivalent of the 2009 New York Yankees, who were dubbed The Best Team Money Can Buy.
After failing to develop its own talent over a number of years, the Yankees brought in a trio of top free agents — Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett — in a $423.5 million spending spree to revive the team’s fortunes.
The move paid off as the Yankees went on to win their 27th World Series title, but few people in the sports world celebrated this almost artificial success.
ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro runs the network, as does Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, and is pinning his hopes on a handful of high-paid stars to win the sports streaming wars.
For the Yankees’ roster of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett, ESPN’s top list is headlined by Pat McAfee, Stephen A. Smith, Troy Aikman, Joe Buck and Peyton Manning – with Shannon Sharpe to come.
These moves come after ESPN has struggled to turn emerging talent into mainstream stars over the past decade.
In the past, the likes of Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott and Bill Simmons climbed through the ranks to become household names.
But the same could not be said for Jemele Hill, Katie Nolan, Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and Bomani Jones.
So Pitaro injected the money into a star-driven model to ensure ESPN lives up to its self-proclaimed billing as The Worldwide Leader in Sports over the next decade.
A bet of 330 million dollars
It will cost ESPN about $330 million to fund this personality push, with no guarantee of success.
McAfee is joining ESPN this fall in a deal worth a reported $85 million over five years, according to the New York Post.
This comes after Stephen A. signed a five-year contract extension worth $60 million in 2021.
To bolster its Monday Night Football coverage, Aikman joined ESPN in a five-year, $92.5 million contract, while the Bucks’ five-year deal is worth between $60-$75 million.
The deals for Peyton and Eli Manning are unknown, in part due to Omaha Productions’ production deal for the Peyton’s Places franchise, but they are believed to be worth over $10 million each.
Meanwhile, other top stars such as Mike Greenberg, Scott Van Pelt and Michael Wilbon are believed to earn around $5-6.5 million per year.
‘Worst day in ESPN history’
Those deals have come at a steep cost to the overall ESPN talent pool, which has been decimated in the past week.
The most high-profile firings include Jeff Van Gundy, Jalen Rose, Max Kellerman, Ashley Brewer and Suzy Kolber.
Other dismissals included Keyshawn Johnson, Matt Hasselbeck, Chris Chelios, Steve Young, Rob Ninkovich, Neil Everett, Joon Lee, LaPhonso Ellis, Todd McShay and Jason Fitz.
ESPN’s college football expert Paul Finebaum described last Friday as “the worst day of my 10 years at ESPN.”
He added: “It’s a special place to work, but it can be cruel.”
By putting all its eggs in the basket with McAfee and other stars, ESPN has significantly weakened its national radio presence and parts of its NFL and NBA coverage
Van Gundy was part of a very successful NBA commentary team with Mike Breen and Mark Jackson.
Meanwhile, Kolber and former NFL quarterback Young were mainstays of ESPN’s Monday Night Football coverage.
Train ESPN star Dan Le Batard went a step further than Finebaum calling the network’s Black Friday “the worst day in ESPN history.”
“We’ve seen this day coming for a long time as Disney tries to fix some of its mistakes with ESPN people who are pretty much interchangeable,” Le Batard said on his podcast.
“And while ESPN took the public hit on Friday for dropping those costs, I thought to myself, when that happened, are they actually going to feel this beyond this day?
“Will it be something that empirically deters viewers, or some of the people who were let go or all of the people, will somebody who uses ESPN now say, ‘Never mind, I’m out on ESPN?'”
“I could be next,” admits Stephen A
Pitaro could even add to his A-list by bringing in Sharpe, who recently hit free agency.
Last month, the NFL icon left FS1’s Undisputed after co-hosting the show with Skip Bayless for over seven years.
Sharpe has been linked with a move to join Stephen A. and Molly Qerim in the rotating group of debaters on First Take.
He could have a big presence on Monday Night Football.
And yet, with the cord-cutting phenomenon showing no signs of stopping, there’s a good chance ESPN could make further cuts in the future.
Even Stephen A. – considered ESPN’s brightest star – is worried about his job prospects.
“If we want to be real about it, let’s face reality. This is not the end that’s coming anymore,” he said on his podcast.
“And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I could be next.”
The pressure on McAfee in particular to succeed at ESPN is immense.
Many sports fans on social media pointed to McAfee and his contract amid ESPN’s layoffs.
On Twitter, the former NFL player said he was “reflecting on the journey of our show as I was murdered on the internet today.”
He added: “We are very pumped to join ESPN and our goal is that ‘mass exits’ are never a thing again (and) we hope to help with that.
“Obviously that’s a lofty goal, but that’s how I really look at life.”
That the Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2009 should give ESPN pause for thought.