The move will undoubtedly be controversial, not just among those Olbermann burned as a highly political host of MSNBC’s Countdown but also among old-school ESPN elites who were around when Olbermann left the Worldwide Leader on contentious terms 16 years ago. Nevertheless, I think it has the potential to be a brilliant move for both of them.
For one, Olbermann is one of the sharpest sports minds out there. Because of his politics and the controversies that surrounded both his Countdown days and his short stint at Current TV, people tend to forget that he’s an avid baseball fan — he’s written about baseball since he left Current and is a member of SABR, the baseball metrics organization — who’s also capable of dissecting sports and connecting with audiences in ways many of ESPN’s talking heads aren’t. They also forget how big a role Olbermann, alongside former co-host Dan Patrick, played in shaping the sports entertainment behemoth we know as ESPN today. Patrick and Olbermann brought wit and comedy to SportsCenter — through phrases like “en fuego” and “it’s deep, and I don’t think it’s playable” — that encapsulated the personality ESPN has always tried to give the show. Olbermann and Patrick were appointment television, and they spawned a generation of sports anchors that have tried (and mostly failed) to emulate not just their wit but the passion and knowledge they brought to the job. Plenty of people dislike the guy for obvious reasons, but he’s a natural when it comes to talking sports. That’s undeniable, and The Big Show with him and Patrick alongside each other was proof positive of that.
More importantly, while the New York Times report said there was internal debate about whether Olbermann was part of the network’s past or future, the move strikes me as the sort of gutsy choice the old ESPN would have made when it was regularly taking chances and busting seams in sports television. The placement on ESPN2, the sister channel Olbermann helped launch in 1993, suggests that ESPN is trying to make this less mainstream and more experimental and perhaps even edgy. It isn’t clear what type of show Olbermann and ESPN are going to produce — the Times says politics are off limits but pop culture and other non-sports topics aren’t — but it has the potential to be something fresh and brilliant, a newsy commentary program that acts more as a substantive complement to Outside The Lines than as a spinoff of SportsCenter or the opinion shows ESPN produces.
But that’s the thing about Olbermann that makes this more than a touch risky, too. Channeled wrongly, his passion can come off more abrasive than insightful, and while that has a place on MSNBC or Current, it probably won’t work at ESPN. Harnessed and utilized correctly, though, he has the ability to provide the type of witty, biting commentary that the sports media often either lacks or is downright afraid of. But to really capture that potential requires a freedom that, while risky, I hope ESPN isn’t loath to give him.
I hope “politics” being off limits only covers day-to-day general politics and not policy and cultural issues that affect sports, because Olbermann is capable of providing hard-hitting and culturall-aware commentary and opinions about substantive issues in sports, not the shallow controversy-for-the-sake-of-controversy soundbites ESPN delivers on shows like First Take and in segments like First & 10. Those issues don’t always intertwine with politics but often brush up against them. And if, as the Times suggests, the move is meant to counter the soon-to-launch Fox Sports 1′s hiring of Regis Philbin to fill a similar position, well, it’d be a shame to let such an obvious talent advantage go to waste by putting Olbermann across from some mailing-it-in shock jock like Skip Bayless or by pushing him to act in a similar manner.
ESPN has shown a willingness to take chances with many of its products in the past, as I detailed when examining their recent ratings slide last week. It hasn’t totally abandoned that, especially on the print side, where it produces quality cultural and long-form journalism through spin-off sites like Grantland and ESPNW and ESPN The Magazine issues like the Taboo Issue and the Body Issue. With Olbermann, they have a chance to do something similar on air, where they’ve largely lost the edge and innovation that brought us shows like OTL and Pardon The Interruption. The obvious question is whether Olbermann has burned too many bridges with audiences outside those who loved him on Countdown, or with too many ESPN people, to make it work. The larger one, though, is whether ESPN, which now has another rich personality that has a history with the network and an established reputation with audiences, will be too scared to turn him loose.