It wasn’t that long ago that getting a job at ESPN was “the dream” for young, passionate sports fans who wanted to work in sports media. As 2020 ends, though, ESPN looks more and more like a sinking ship where bad things keep happening to the talent.
The announcement that Dan Le Batard – until recently, one of the faces of the Worldwide Leader – is leaving for the ever-popular “new opportunity” with almost two years left on a lucrative contract was the unavoidable result of ESPN’s crummy treatment of Le Batard and his show team in the past 18 months:
ESPN's Dan Le Batard has often sparred with his bosses, who once suspended him for two days over a stunt involving LeBron James's departure from Miami. https://t.co/B5GAsdnqpc
— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) December 3, 2020
Granted, Le Betard didn’t help himself by taking to ESPN’s air and going in hard on President Trump (and ESPN itself) in July of 2019. That screed, where Le Betard said that “we here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight” and that the network’s talent could only touch on political issues when they could “use one of these sports figures as a meat-shield in the most cowardly possible way to discuss these subjects” was one of those biting-of-the-hand-that-feeds moments that has led to other ESPN employees being shown the door.
If ESPN had quickly dismissed Le Batard last summer in the wake of that controversy, it would have been unseemly but it could have been done in a Friday afternoon news dump and soon forgotten. Instead, ESPN and Le Batard continued an uneasy relationship that was doubtlessly complicated by a global pandemic that forced Le Batard to conduct a nationally syndicated and simulcasted radio show remotely and without cameras for an extended period of time.
There were two compelling reasons for ESPN to keep Le Batard around.
The first (as it always is) was money. Le Batard signed a four-year contract extension in 2018 at a reported $3M per year.
The second was a more complex, more significant reason: Le Batard was one of the network’s most deft facilitators of showcasing ESPN personalities who aren’t white men. The list is very long, but just as examples the likes of Mina Kimes, Domonique Foxworth, and Israel Gutierrez have been frequent guests on Le Batard’s radio show and his Highly Questionable television show. Le Batard, the son of Cuban immigrants, made a plain point of sharing his platform with talent who brought diversity to a Caucasian-dominated media empire:
— Renato (@RPMSports18) August 3, 2018
As time wore on, and Le Batard kept at it with occasional politically-tinged content, ESPN finally came to a conclusion that the relationship had to end. And that’s when the network did what every employer trying to break an unwanted employee does: It made Le Batard’s job unpleasant in every way it could.
In July, ESPN cut an hour off Le Batard’s national radio time slot.
Last month, Le Batard’s simulcast was taken off television and moved to ESPN+, the network’s subscription streaming service. Shortly thereafter, ESPN laid off one of Le Batard’s producers (Chris Cote) without telling him. Le Batard was understandably angered by this move and his passive-aggressive response was to keep Cote on the show and pay Cote out of his own pocket.
And now it’s over.
The press release was sunshine and roses, employer and employee graciously thanking each other for the opportunity, etc. But there is surely bad blood. ESPN will cut the buyout check with its eyes closed and two fingers holding its nose.
This is the rare mutual parting of the ways where both parties are equally better off. ESPN doesn’t need Le Batard to continue to promote diverse talent. The network has made significant strides (with Le Batard’s help) on that point in recent times.
As for Le Batard, he’s a big enough talent that, at 51 years of age, he will have plenty of prominent and lucrative options for his show, and he’ll be able to say more or less what he wants wherever he ends up because he will almost certainly make that a stipulation of whatever contract he signs next.
With each of these high-profile departures, ESPN’s stature in sports media diminishes further.
Unless your taste runs exclusively to Mike Greenberg, in which case, happy days for you.
How long until ESPN’s all Mike Greenberg radio lineup now that Dan Le Batard is gone? pic.twitter.com/rsSZVDtF1Z
— Tony Clements (@TonyClementsTC) December 3, 2020